Jungle Journey

We were visiting friends we had met in a small church in the inner city of Jacksonville. Chuck H. had been a tail-gunner in ‘Nam, and his wife was the sweetest Valdosta peach in Georgia. Both had Jawja accents thick enough to grill for 10 minutes and still leave the insides of their words all soft and warm. Chuck and MaryNell and their five children regaled and reeled us into their world of the Huastecan jungle. We couldn’t help but follow. All the way to Tamazunchale, Mexico.

With our 6 year old son in tow, we loaded up the old Corolla and made the 1,700 mile journey to visit our friends and learn to love what they loved. Arriving there, we were greeted by Virginia, their maid, who was, if possible, the very, very southern version of a Georgia peach. So demure and in charge and wonderful was she! So Aztec were her origins that to make her stoic heart laugh became an obsession with Chuck and MaryNell. In the safety of their home, Virginia learned to laugh much and tell wry jokes. As far as we knew…

My “See It and Say It in Spanish” book saw me through that wonderful week. I already had a proclivity for language and the connections of thought and sound, so it was that by the end of the week, I could listen to simple conversations and not miss too much.

We marveled at the large “little town” on the side of tropical mountains dotted with orange trees and banked by a good-sized river. The temperature was easily 110 degrees on a summer day, with humidity to match. The local tianguis, or market day, was not to be missed. My first taste of Canteloupe-Ade on that hot afternoon was a slaking sensation never to be forgotten!

Later, we accompanied Chuck on an evening excursion out into the jungle, to visit with friends in a small village. They wanted to hear him preach to their little congregation. After driving for almost 90 minutes over treacherous roads disguised as goat paths, we crossed a stream and parked the Bronco. From there, it was another hour long hike on the side of the mountain, through pastures of cows and Brahma bulls, past banana trees and naranjos, into the almost invisible village that consisted of thatch-roof huts, serious men, silent women, grinning little kids, and small animals.

We were welcomed, all along our hike, by one traveler or another, with the strangest touching of the hands… a fingertip handshake. It seemed so strange and uninvolved to greet another this way, and yet it was the stoic way of the ancient indigenous DNA there. So by the time we arrived in the village, we were almost “old hands” at this new greeting. We were ushered into one of the low, dark huts of earthen floor and neat appointments of rough-hewn stools.

The closeness of the hut’s air, and the heaving lungs of the hikers all made for a sauna atmosphere of painful heat and sweat. From somewhere, a rather elegant offering of sweet, hot coffee in a plain cup was produced. I would have killed for an ice cold Coke at that moment and thought for sure the coffee would do me in, but within five minutes I felt refreshed and cool as a cucumber. I made a quick mental note of that heat-stroke cure for later.

We stayed for the church service and heard our friend, his rich Southern drawl not lost within his Spanish, speak plainly to these lovely folks whose native tongue was actually Nauhautl. He had a smile that was as genuine as a puppy, and a love that could not be feigned or faked in front of so honest a group of human flesh. I try to remember sometimes, that moment of completely human, and yet transcendent connection that I felt with both the man whom we admired and the people he would move heaven and earth for. A Real reality exists, not just because we think so, but because we can love so.

If any redemption is available for those who can at least appreciate such a moment, I hope that that salvation will extend to my penury of spirit when I need it most.

We said our goodbyes at midnight and ventured out into the massive, non-electric darkness of primeval night. Moonless, marvelous–lit only by stars–our path regressed through the orange-tree pastures. I was slipping along the rain-soaked path in my flip-flops now laden with clay globs, struggling with a long skirt and breathing out fearful blessings on the various Brahma beasts that greeted us out of the darkness with their shiny noses and great, horned heads. A more imposing and unsettling sight you can’t imagine! Especially within the shock of your immense vulnerability. It was better to not think too much as I walked along.

A bumpy return to Tamazunchale, a sleepy tumble into humid sheets, the deadened sleep of exhaustion seemed an insufficient respite from the day’s grueling journey. Too soon we were awakened by the clanging of the ice factory next door, the crowing of every rooster in town, the joy of children scrambling about. They bothered Virginia for tortillas and scrambled eggs and canteloupe and made her laugh at their American exuberance.

Our week quickly evaporated into the mysterious jungle atmosphere, and we three headed home with bright eyes and excited chatter. But the memories and friendships made there would take us much further, and we knew it even then. We had, after all, already picked out a place to live in that peaceful valley just off Carreterra 57…

Alas, it wasn’t to be.

The sleepy town of Mexico City and 20 million of our closest friends awaited us.

River Rat Slack

Update: This post is from three years ago. It took me that long– well, much longer, really– to find that girl again. Today I did. The J.R. says I am radiating joy and happiness. It’s true. I lost hours of time doing nothing but soaking a line and aggravating blue crabs and generally not thinking about anything or any one else. Amazing how hard that is for me. . .

River Rat. In my blood, I guess. Long hours of reading books during the still of the hot afternoons gave way to fishing and crabbing on the backside of the clock; only after another good dunk in the Weekie Wachie River. It was the best investment my parents ever made, a weekend retreat on the Gulf Coast.

Next morning we’d be in the little ski boat, headed out to the Gulf for some scallops or Black Rock Bass. Then, back home to check the lone little crab line. One chicken bone and a single-minded little girl with a stealthy net yielded dinner for all.

It’s not that I like fishing so much as I like catching.

And yes, I learned to clean ’em at about that age.

Other afternoons, I’d jump into the wooden row-boat and take myself as far upriver as my arms could manage, just for the joy of drifting back. The peace and quiet–the craved-for solitude was a bonus for the last child of eight.

“Just lay low,” my little inner self would say, “and they’ll forget about you and find other things to torture.”

Catholic School Girl

At the risk of confirming or confusing your mental image of your correspondent, here it is, a pic of me:

In First Grade.

Hard to believe. Even then, you can note the scar over my left eye, bravely earned on my tricycle. It plays havoc with my makeup routine even today.

You can’t see the eight stitches under my chin, for which I have no explanation except that I have five older brothers and two older sisters. I’m sure I earned it in battle.

I was a flaxen blonde then, except those dark eyebrows were giving away the fact that by 4th grade I would be a brunette.

My mom taught me how to read at age four, so of course I was the class problem child, bored with the work. I somehow remember knowing everything, and the words to every song they made us sing. Even if they were different than what was on the chalk board. My teacher was exasperated with me. Poor Sister Mary Perpetua!

I only had to write out the Act of Contrition about fifty times and can still recite it, to this day. It was prescribed after trumped-up charges about throwing rocks at the boys or some other pugilistic pursuit. As if!

It’s not like I’ve never posted pics of myself here before, btw. If you put ’em all together you can almost imagine me, all grown up.

The Outer Limits

(Note: cross-posted at The Line Is Here. But you slackers are too lazy to outclick…)

Once upon a time, we lived outside the U.S. for almost five years. As a family, we fully adopted our alien land, learned its language, loved its people, hated its traffic, but always understood that we were guests in an amazing, overcrowded, ancient city. We also learned about the sort of strength it takes to live without your normal and almost invisible underpinnings of culture and familiarity.

Where There Is No Doctor was a required manual before moving South of the Border. It’s not that Mexico has no doctors, it’s that you wouldn’t know how to tell them what is wrong. And even if you could, would you understand his reply? At any rate, it’s an excellent handbook for every family, regardless of where you live, and especially if you go on long camping trips. It may be hard to imagine, children, but some places really don’t have Internet. Even now.

Anyway, when my son was but seven years old and adjusting to the Grade A smog in Mexico City, he came down with bronchitis. Really bad. Fortunately, penicillin is cheap and plentiful, so I went around the corner and bought a 10-day supply and some decongestant. Late that night, the poor child’s rasping brought me to my knees to pray, and to my handbook for insight. A steaming pot of water was place on the floor by his bed, I woke him and turned him onto his tum, with his face down below his chest, breathing in the vapors and steam. And then I pounded his little back. Out popped the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen from that day to this: black-green-yellow mucus, a big as a large egg. He cried, I cried, and then he could breathe again. Slept sound. Woke better.

You have no idea what that kind of relief feels like, so far from home.

We hadn’t lived there a month before the transmission gave out on our Blazer. Right near Chapultapec Park. On the on-ramp of the Loop. I had to sit and wait for the Jolly Roger to find a “grua”. Hours pass. No cell phones. No idea if I’ll ever see him again, or how we’ll get home or when, or if I’ll ever see the States again, while my hungry son and I rejoice to find peanut brittle in the glove box. Twilight approaches and hard-looking men come up to the truck saying, “don’t be here after dark, Senora, it’s not safe.” I nod and blink back tears, but my young son has picked up on the fear.

Like some gallant knight, Roger soon arrives with a tow truck, and with his heart in his throat commits us to a taxi driver to take us home while he rides with the tow truck. Fortunately, I was a good navigator early on, recognized landmarks, out loud, just to let the driver know I knew where we were in that sea of city inhabitants. We made it home without incident. All three of us. And the truck.

You have no idea what that kind of relief feels like, unless you’ve tested your courage outside its limits, called upon your wits, and stood your ground politely, while inside you weren’t even sure you could ever hope your Stateside family could recover your remains should some fell evil strike you down.

Politically, it’s a dicey thing, being from the Imperialist Nation to the North. Everyone wants to know you, talk with you, and hopes that you know their cousin in Los Angeles. Even in a city of 20 million people, one’s world is very small, to the point of hoping that yours is, too, and maybe we’ve got something in common. It was a charming and amusing occurrence, every time.

However, when the U.S. went to Panama to wrest power from Noriega (in order to allow the Chinese to run the place, apparently), we lost some good friends who took extreme umbrage at the act. They weren’t alone. What a strange sense of alienation, to see anti-American graffiti near our apartment,to feel the sense of betrayal and suspicion some felt at having an “invasion” so close to their back door.

No wonder some Mexicans in Arizona are headed back home. Intimidation is a real motivator to someone who is at a cultural disadvantage.

The papers and magazines loved a good murder and would splay the bloody scenes on the front page, like some demented Tarantino story board. You shield young eyes from that and all the girlie mags on every corner.

And people worked hard,there. All 20 million of them. Beggars only existed in the tourist zones, go figure! But little wizened old men could work your young American lard-butt into the ground, make no mistake.

And hardworking friends always wanted to abandon Mexico and move North, where there was hope long before the Obamas cheapened it. And what would you say, what could you say? You can’t say anything because you see what real hopelessness looks like. It looks like unpainted cinder blocks and dirt yards and endless need. Not easy to say no, don’t go north.

Do you know what it’s like to watch the Super Bowl in Spanish, and yet hear Whitney Houston sing the National Anthem and watch the fly-over, only to burst out in tears? No one was more surprised than I, for I loved Mexico as my own, learned its dirgeful anthem, its pledge, and recited them daily in our charter school. But, oh! My Country ‘Tis of Thee was the song in my young and non-political heart. Sweet land of liberty, I missed her so!

And then the Space Shuttle has its first successful mission since Challenger, and you see it on television while staying in the jungled heart of the Yucatan, and you just blub and blub until your sinuses become painfully impacted.

One morning we came home to our apartment after breakfast, only to be surprised by the concussive sound of our next door neighbor, a Federal, firing his semi-automatic rifle into the park. The other neighbor ladies all run to our apartment where Roger is the only other man around during the day, seeking some sense of security. Our son, half a block away was held in the school house for safety, and we couldn’t get to him. We peered through the service windows into the other apartment only to see the Fed with his baby on one hip and his rifle on the other. The local SWAT team arrives and leaves just as quickly once they find out he’s a Federal. Peace resumes, but we move two days later.

We survived flash floods, smog, earthquakes, sickness, disorientation, panic attacks, measles, mumps and dengue fever. We endured public frottage on the Bruta Cien bus lines and subways. We went camping, ate corn fungus, were politely robbed by a gas station attendant, saw primordial cave paintings, hiked jungle trails, fired off a gun in church, and were pulled over numerous times by the cops. Never paid more than a few bucks of “mordida” fines, while other Americans paid hundreds of dollars. That’s because Roger knew one of the simplest forms of foreign survival: how to smile. He really is irresistible when he smiles!

So, we smiled and smiled, laughed and learned good jokes, gained the best friends, and sometimes didn’t have the best plans for our adventures, but always knew we could make it happen. It was terrifying and reassuring most of the time and all at once!

If you ever get the chance, pull the rug out from under your life just once, before life does it to you first. Test yourself. Test your real nerve, your real sense of survival, your real sense of place and time and how you’re going to fit into the circumstances… or if not, how you’re gonna call the shots.

Best to have Tequila handy. And a smile.

Christmas Joy

Ah, now my Christmas is complete! My sister-in-law came through for me and sent me a few pics she took of our son’s wedding last month. Someone fussed about having no pictures to post.

So herewith: the Bride and Groom!

I suspect they’ll be the toast of Charleston some day soon.

Merry Christmas, ya’ll, from the JR and me!

Wedding Notes

Gah. I’m the worst for updates.

The Wedding? Fabulous!

Her gown? Incredible.

The families? As strange and goofy as yours.

The Getaway Clothes? Hugo Boss suit for him, some stylish trench coat over *what?* for her! The getaway car? Shrinkwrapped and filled with balloons. As poor Paul emptied the balloons from one side, my sister gathered them up and reloaded them in from the other. Hilarious! Bubbles for everyone.

“No ifs, buts, or maybes, we’re off making babies” lettered on the rear window. Other sister frowns, “but it doesn’t say they’re married.” Yeeesh….

Pictures? Not yet. You see, I’m one of those people who needs to be in the moment in the moment. Stopping to take pictures is an analog, static procedure which dims the event and dulls the senses. I must live it, experience it, and enshrine it in my Monet of Memory. Fuzzy and evocative, my moments are mine to interpret as a whole entity. A well-paid photographer will capture what everyone else saw.

Me? I was there.

Last Night Home

Our son will wed on Saturday. He lives in another state but is marrying a wonderful girl from Florida, and the nuptials will be not too far away from here.

So, he’s spending the last days of his bachelorhood with the ‘rents, sitting on the porch and smoking cigars with his old man, waiting for his Best Man to arrive from Australia, hasslin’ his mom about her blog, getting heckled by his other buddies, and generally having a great time.

Plus, he brought home his entire wardrobe as laundry.

What, you may ask, is this fine young man reading while awaiting his wedding day? Some self-help advice? Some practical career manual? Some esoteric, transcendent philosophy?

Nothing less than my prized, signed copy of Freighter Captain that he’s been whining for ever since I got it, the selfish brat!

Some things never change. He steals books from us all the time.

Now he’ll have a very beautiful, well-read, and intelligent wife to steal them from. It’s an even trade, however, since he’s an excellent chef, artist, writer, and musician–and the most deviling prankster. (I fear what his victims/friends have in store for the getaway car.)

May God give them joy in this latest, and best prank: marriage!

Speaking of Krauts

I’m almost all German. A bit of Cherokee for interest and bronzing, but the rest is undeniably driven, perfectionistic, and slightly… gosh, would likely be arrogant but for the strict Catholic upbringing in an overly-large family with little to brag about.

Still, my brother has an IQ of 200, which left the rest of us seven kids pitching and yawing about in the seas of mediocrity 50 and 60 points below. Hard to stand out in a crowd like that. My grandfather’s second, secret family are all geologists and rocket engineers in California. Us, we’re more like Prince of Tides types. Southern and sullied by shameful secrets. It’s a point of misdirected pride now that the Ya-Ya sisterhood has made it all fashionable.

Still, I wish I had been a part of my grandfather’s other west-coast family. I would have enjoyed a geekdom beyond my wildest dreams. Quantum physics and igneous rock talk at the supper table!

But here, once for kicks, I got to work in a makeshift metal foundry pounding and grinding (careful!) and finishing out bronze statues of famous Lions, working with an alcoholic artist who lived aboard a boat that he floated up from the bottom of the Bay of Slaughter. He was a shiftless sort that you just loved to invite to your parties because he was elegantly dashing and charming and had the best stories. And he would make these elaborate repasts for our lunch, replete with wine and cheeses and salads. Why yes, he did work at the local liberal arts college. How did you guess?

I made not one thin dime working for him, received no recognition from the local art community, and got very sick eating the food he served. And a bit of copper poisoning. And a twitch in my right hand that hasn’t gone away a year later.

But I can see the Shuttle launches from my balcony and dream of a different life.