27 May 2008

The space between us

I attended a new writing group this morning and am thrilled -- the house is too quiet for how I am feeling! This is a group that started at my in-laws' church and expanded outward (though for all I know I may be the only non-churchgoer in the crowd) and it's about writing life stories.

First a big disclaimer: I will never reveal personal details (names, biographical details, etc.) of the people in the group in my blog. I won't say something different in my blog from what I would say in front of anyone or everyone in the writing group. I don't want anyone to have to worry about what they can say in front of me and trust to be kept private, nor do I want anyone to feel they have to question what I am really thinking that I am not saying when I am in their presence. That's a promise.

Since I got home from the meeting, I've come to one little conclusion: The group writing experience reminds me of what a hopeful person I am at heart. It's good for me to be with others who are listening and responding to their own true voices, their own true stories. Because every one is amazing, everyone else's and mine too. Today there was a tea party at someone's house and a warm introduction, followed by gentle but firm critiquing, just the kind I like. Everyone was so respectful, and so joyful about the opportunity to bring all of our stuff together: our writing and our selves.

And right now it's all reminding me of last night's TV, a reality show I had never watched before. "So You Think You Can Dance?" makes it sound so tough, like the judges must be these high-schooly, mean people, sniggering and pointing fingers. And the show is some of that, but so much more. Each of the judges is capable of being surprising, so there's plenty of natural suspense in the judging of each dancer -- well, the dancers that don't get stopped mid-move and virtually laughed out of the room, that is. The English judge with the fluffy ginger hairdo has a real soft spot for rappers and hip-hoppers, and a sharp eye for talent. The middle woman, with her big hair and brassy attitude, has good observations about technique and is never afraid to laugh out loud, with delight or disgust. The artsy Sharon Stone-lookalike on the end has dance chops, you can tell, yet takes this this parade of hopefuls and wanna-bes and positively embraces what these dancers bring to the stage. She delivers her critiques in the most loving possible of ways, gently preserving the potential dance stars' oh-so-fragile ideas of themselves as dancers and trying to help them lose all the baggage and misinformation that hold them back from becoming real, professional dancers: the bizarre costumes, the out-there quirky personas, the lack of information about what dance is.

After an hour and a half of the show (and there's more tomorrow night!), I found myself full of admiration for every one of the dancers and the judges both for putting themselves out there and for trying to articulate what dance truly is. I love what happens when people create that creative space for themselves and others. I love it in music and Greg Hamilton talked about it in Mystic Ball. It can be a form of meditation and can open pathways to perception and insight. So I too feel joyful and grateful that we can gather and support each other as we share stories in these sacred spaces we create, these spaces where we can define anew every moment what it means to write, to be social, to share.

22 May 2008

This just in! Monsanto's products deadlier than ever!

I'm looking at the description of Monsanto's Concentrated Round Up in one of the newspaper ad inserts -- the big weekend gardening sales are on! The company has completely changed tacks in its advertising. No longer are they claiming that the stuff is biodegradable (for which they received a loud slap on the wrist) nor that it is gone within 24 hours and poses no threat to neighboring flora or fauna. Get these bullet points from today's advertisement (original capitalization faithfully reproduced here):

  • Rain Fast In 2 Hours

  • Won't Wash Off

  • More killing power into the root

  • Use in & around fences, trees, driveways, flower beds, walkways, shrubs, vegetable garden

To add insult to injury, you are invited to poison your environment and yourself for the not-so-low price of US $24.99 for 10 ounces (about the amount in a single-serving water bottle).

21 May 2008

The road to Akumal Pueblo

A niggling question remained unspoken on my lips as we rode taxis around and when I saw some pictures of Akumal from 30 years ago. Who was here on Half Moon Bay, Bahia Media Luna, before? Surely not no one, in all that visual glory and fruit of the land and sea in one stunning place, a well stocked window on the world. Now it's all owned by white real estate people who come to drink or contemplate or dive or snorkel or own real estate in peace, away from the hustle and bustle of life in the US. So what happened to what it was before?

This was our view of the place when we arrived. Our place on Half Moon Bay was situated where the bay curves north, almost as far as you could get from the center of the town of Akumal, it seemed to us as we trudged back and forth in the heat, having opted not to get a car nor take cabs much. A bay, a snorkeling beach, it was all right there and quite spectacular. You can snorkel from just about anywhere if you have your own gear, and you can start from many different places (Akumal Beach in the center of town, Half Moon Bay, Yal Ku Lagoon), each with great appeal.

And just that quickly it happened: the blinders dropped, as they always do. I read some more on message boards and learned that the native (Mayan-Mexican) people had been relocated to the jungle (look to the left, across MX307 from the bay and town) -- and weren't so happy about it. Who would be happy about replaying that dreadful scenario, the one where the rich white guys come in and take everything from the brown native people all over again and leave them a patch of leveled ground in the jungle instead of their beaches brimming with palms and turtles and birds and fish? This gave me a whole different perspective on seeing everyone trudging and biking to work in the hot sun. (Just giving every able-bodied resident a great bicycle, I swear, would change their lives in a hugely positive way. On their daily march or ride from Akumal Pueblo, the swath carved out of the jungle on the other side of the highway from the bays and lagoons of the town of Akumal, they are likely to negotiate dirt and sand, wildlife, mud and/or potholes, crazy drivers, and sometimes drunk drivers. Everyone should have fenders, baskets or panniers (so they can carry their work clothes in them and not have to get them so sweaty so quickly), and bells -- or bells and horns! It would sound just like India! I know, it would be a guilty liberal's gesture, through and through. Yet also I know that's what I would want for commuting that path, if I had to do it.)

Now I'm all curious about these places. Because it seems to me you get on someone's top-ten list of island idylls and it's all over. I sure would like to know that the people who let the gringos take over Half Moon Bay in Akumal can send all their kids to college. Now half the businesses in town seem to be run by white people and from here what looks like a complicated mix of expatriate US refugees and locals who have managed to hang on or buy in. My questions were on my lips a lot; I wanted to ask the bartender at La Buena Vida, Half Moon Bay's main watering hole, whether he liked reggae, because there at the beach bar, sitting at a swing with sand under my toes, it was sounding pretty good to me (even though it is usually among my least favorite genres of music -- which for me is saying something because there aren't many entire genres I don't like).

On our vacation, our view kept swinging to the immediate: the colors of water in the bay and sky, the winds, the waves, the ocean life, the quiet, the fine, white sand. We were on vacation. But there was another side: the white real estate lady owner of the perfectly nice condo. How you can go everywhere and only speak English and just about everyone will accommodate you. Some people are truly interested in hospitality and opening doors; we met many among the service employees we encountered. But we saw lots of other expresssions, too -- especially as white people with a brown kid. I liked that part, and so did our daughter, but I noticed that we did not uniformly see the acceptance we usually get at home, regardless of whether the mixed-race double-take precedes it.

Our daughter was curious about language and whether she could communicate with the brown people she saw. She liked being immersed in mostly Spanish-speaking people but we heard many other languages as well among the visiting tourists, who come from all over the world. I have no doubt she will be fluent in at least one language some day. Yesterday I made a little movie of her at home speaking her own language. Her made-up language sounds to me a lot like the sounds of the women speaking Bengali in the orphanage. She says she can already understand Bengali. I can see how it might not take her long to learn it, or to really get Spanish. I think part of the barrier is she is still learning how to write and form thoughts in English, and learning a new and different syntax is tough while you're putting all that other stuff together. But she's got a lot of vocabulary already, more than she realizes I am sure, and a great ear and tongue.

It is an odd sensation, and I noticed this in Thailand, too, to be able to skim so lightly on the surface of a place and its people simply because of the accidental privileges of having been born where we were and being relatively healthy and relatively wealthy. I know that we are coming there and enriching the local economies with our US dollars (except that euros are the new It currency), but I see now that there's so much more to Akumal than just that bay and that beach bar.

I wonder whether it is the right thing to make a big carbon stomp-print on the planet to hurl myself onto that once-pristine shoreline, only to ignore what is really right in front of my eyes. Someone wrote recently on a message board about bringing twenty pounds of books to a school in a small town not far from Akumal. It was a funny story: when the book donors arrived at the school, the person who was supposed to receive them wasn't there. They were asked to wait to speak to the principal, and then the superintendent, of the school. People couldn't really comprehend why this white couple from the States wanted to visit this school -- did they want books, or want to give them books? Various degrees of suspicion were adopted, then abandoned; finally, after many hours of waiting, the couple were allowed to present their twenty-pound stack of paperback children's books, all in Spanish, to the little country school's principal and librarian, and all was well. It was such a small gesture, but such a meaningful one, too -- the kind of thing that can inspire a thousand more of the same gesture. Bikes and books for Akumal? Seems like almost the least we could do.

20 May 2008

We all live in the wild

That we blend our lives with our animals' lives is something many of us cherish even while taking for granted. We're continually exposed to domesticated animals as pets and various livestock, and to animals as food in our supermarkets. I've been noticing an increasing variety of intersections with wildness of late, though, and I've been fascinated in them, much in the way I felt reading T.C. Boyle's Tortilla Curtain years ago. And then we got to meet some spider monkeys.

Not a week before we left for our trip to southern Mexico, I saw someone's blog entry about their visit to The Jungle Place, a refuge for spider monkeys. These folks had gone to celebrate a birthday and it looked like a great idea.

I wrote to The Jungle Place people immediately and asked if we could come visit. One of the owners, Heidi, responded right away that they could see us on Saturday at 11.

When 11 that Saturday morning came, we had finished our breakfast at the Turtle Bay Bakery and were just approaching Akumal's taxi stand, where we engaged in a protracted discussion of where this place was. If we had not had Mapchick's map of the Riviera Maya with us, the drivers would have assumed we were going to another attraction, Aktun Chen, or to a cenote, and tried to take us there, but they would not have gotten us to The Jungle Place. In explaining where we wanted to go, we even mimed monkeys for the taxi drivers (how often do you have a good reason to do that in your life?). Our designated taxi driver, showing lots of cool but not much confidence about his destination ("There's something that interesting in Chemuyil? Really?" was what he seemed to be saying, unconvinced, from behind his shades). Eventually set out and got onto the right road. Things were looking pretty desolate when we turned back and headed into the center of Chemuyil for some help from the taxi drivers. Turned out they weren't sure either, but after a bit more discussion, we were directed back down that first road again. By then I was convinced by the map that it must be farther down that road, too.

And there it was! Thanks to the persistence of a lot of people including Mapchick and our taxi driver, we found it at last, only 20 minutes late or so. I hoped we weren't missing some crucial window of time with the animals we had come to meet, but I needn't have worried. The taxi driver patiently waited while we figured out whether we would need him to wait for us or come back for us later. The housekeeper was there; the owners were not. A cell phone was dialed, "iTuristas!" muttered urgently. The housekeeper, in full regalia of apron and broom, sweat making ringlets of her hair, handed me the phone. "Sorry, we had to go to San Francisco," I heard and thought at first I was hearing a cancellation. But no, no, the owners realized they had to go to the supermarket in Tulum today as everything would be closed Sunday, and they would be back in 20 minutes. Berta should help us make ourselves at home. And so it was, Berta showing us up to a table upstairs between the monkeys' enclosures and their apartment, bringing us beverages and sweet tea, and in Spanish introducing us to the names and stories that went with the faces peering out from the cage at us.

You could tell everyone there all had their own relationships with the monkeys, but this is a conclusion I reached later, and wasn't quite grasping all that when we first arrived and sat down to wait and meet the little animals. I loved the monkeys' gentle touch when they would reach out of the cage with their long hands, and soon I felt my hand resting gently in theirs or I held theirs sweetly in mine. They were so sweet and relaxed that their touch felt calming; and I wanted to be calm with them so they would be gentle with me and all my family. Berta would tell us their names, but I couldn't even keep the names in my head at first, much less begin recognizing and match them to their faces.

Then our daughter was surprised and a little shocked when they reached through the mesh to grab some of her hair. They have strong grips, and perhaps this was a test: Who's the alpha in your group?" I would guess they enjoyed the little flurry of activity that ensued as we got them to let go. Berta scolded the grasping monkey gently and then returned to her cleaning and we kept hanging around near the monkeys' enclosure, taking a few pictures. A little while later, Heidi and Joel returned from their supermarket sojourn.

We got to know the Jungle Place's owners a little. Heidi started telling us how they had come to own and build, themselves, this compound of bungalows (some rentals) and monkey enclosures, where they now have 13 monkeys, a few toucans, and a small herd of housecats. Joel tidied while Heidi tried to get relief from her sciatica by sitting still as much as she could. He picked up a pair of dirty, holey Chuck Taylors, saying, "These were my best pair of shoes for ten years! I loved these shoes!" Then he pointed to the shoes on his feet, from the Chuck Taylor that is now owned by Reebok, also worn and holey: "Four months I have had these! And look at them now!"

We heard about the the very beginning of their monkey time, when a friend asked them to take her "pet" (which usually translates to "poached" or "stolen") monkey overnight. Heidi took him to a vet in Playa del Carmen and found out how sick he was. "He's on his last legs," she heard the vet say. "You might as well let him die." "What do you mean?" Heidi demanded. "Do your job! Go to work! Get that little monkey back to health!" She added, grinning and shaking her head, "Ten years ago, if you had told me what I would be doing now, where I would be living, I would have said, 'You need to be seen.'"

In this way Chak ("Chak," I asked, laughing "not Chuck, like Chuck Taylors?" Joel laughed. "Right. Chak, not Chuck!") became their first monkey, and he chose for a mate another rescued monkey, Maya, seemingly because spider monkeys in Mexico seem to be like Easter bunnies here (only an order of magnitude more intense and high-maintenance) and because once you've said yes to a monkey your name must quickly spread on the failed-pet rescue network. Later we would be introduced to Chak, now the mac-daddy alpha of the pack and residing in another enclosure with another male. Heidi told us about the birth of Luna and her heartwarming acceptance by her new parents, not a guaranteed occurrence.

At first they tried letting the monkeys live in the house with them, but that quickly became unmanageable. "They were getting into the electrical cords, 'Hey, I've got a green one; what have you got?' And they figured out how to use the ceiling fans as carousels," Heidi said. Once, after they had built the guest bungalows and started renting them out, the monkeys got into one of the visitors' suitcases. "It was a disaster," Heidi recalled.

Heidi and Joel told us who was who: Maya and her daughter Lunita, and Ixchel, a couple of others, and we could see but not touch or meet the newest arrival, Rebeca, who was in an enclosure by herself below. Rebeca was segregated from the others because she had been rescued about ten days earlier, also having been starving to death when they met her. The people who were supposed to be feeding her were "eating the fruit themselves and giving the monkey the peels," Heidi said. "And probably turning most of the money into alcohol," surmised Heidi's friend. "She's too weak to be with the others," Heidi said, explaining how Rebeca didn't know how to eat the fruit they gave her at first. They tried bottle feeding, but she didn't even know how to take a bottle, so they had to put the formula and baby rice cereal in a bowl for her. Now she's putting on more weight and she's getting her strength, and she's curious about the other monkeys. "We couldn't put her in the cage with the other females now," Heidi said. "She'd never make it out of there." After Rebeca recovers more of her natural strength (and they are strong! yow!), she will be ready to meet another one of the young female monkeys.

We were glad we weren't slathered with sunscreen or bug repellent; Joel and Heidi have planted aromatic and bug-resistant plants around the property to discourage the insects, and we would not have been allowed into the monkeys' enclosure if we had been wearing chemicals. I recently read that one big resort nearby asked The Jungle Place if they could bring up to 60 visitors a day there and they were turned down because of the stress on the monkeys. It's not a place to take a big, boisterous (drunken) group, that's for sure. You just have to contact Heidi and Joel ahead of time to arrange everything.

The experience reminded me of the orphanage, especially after my sweetie went in and let them clamber around on him. Ixchel, one of the younger ones, took a shine to him, and cuddled in his arms and started talking, in these sweet, plaintive little peeping sounds. I filmed a little -- it was quite astonishing and tender. That's when I thought of all these children at the orphanage whom we met in India, each so beautiful and singular and new and full of being. Even the babies who still spent most of their days sleeping: When those babies were awake, you knew each would be their own interesting, amazing person one day. Some of the monkeys dove right into getting to know us as much as possible in the short time we had, while others skirted the periphery and kept an eye on the others, perhaps with a measure of distrust that could have occurred for any number of reasons (our scents, attitudes, our utter cluelessness about them, and so forth).

It was definitely weird at first to have the monkeys climbing around on over us, but that is how they sense the world. They must think we're so stiff and awkward, sitting on the ground the way we do! Heidi and Joel told us about their unique tailprint: like our fingerprint whorls or elephants' ears, each animal's is unique for that animal.

When I was in the enclosure, all went smoothly for a while while I held and touched heads and hands and we all checked each other out up close. But Heidi was talking with my family, and then Joel wasn't right there outside the cage, and after about ten minutes with them, the tone in the room suddenly changed. Luna was starting to nip on my toes (I had removed all my earrings but I probably should have either ditched the sparkly dark red nail polish a day or two beforehand or just worn tennies), and then she started to bite, playfully on my achilles tendon area. That's when I announced, "They're biting! I'm done!" And Joel heard my tone of voice and came right over to help me through the double-doored entrance without letting any monkeys out.

I was relieved to be on the outside again and felt humbled in that moment, knowing I had gone in there without any real understanding of who they were and had gotten what I deserved in a sense: ten minutes of wonderful sharing and a few minutes in which they reminded me of who and what they were, and asserted their social structure to this mostly oblivious human.

I loved the experience of having made this space in our plans and gone to meet someone completely new whom I had never met before. I've noticed some people are good at making lasting connections with total strangers when they are on vacation (and now message boards like the forums on locogringo.com make it easier than ever). That is not me on most trips. Solitude and peace and seeing interesting or pretty things are usually the primary objectives of far-flung travels; nor am I usually looking to broaden my social network. So getting a peek into Heidi and Joel's world and the monkeys and their social network really made this experience stand out from the others on our first-ever Caribbean vacation.

Our daughter did not want to go in with the monkeys herself; holding hands with them was as close as she wanted to get after the hair-pulling. Then Joel insisted that Heidi rest while he led us around the rest of their compound and showed us the extent of the monkey enclosures. While we were being introduced to Chak and his roommate, whose name I can't remember, Joel showed us how he kissed them through the mesh. I did this, too, and next thing I knew I'd been grabbed by the hair. "Ow!" I said, trying not to panic, but I could not move. "Wait, I just have to get their hands apart," Joel explained as he pried the monkey's strong fingers off my hair and I was freed. I rubbed my smarting scalp, relieved to have only lost a few hairs. "He was jealous of your kiss. He was trying to lift you up," Joel told me. This really freaked our daughter; she didn't want to walk back on the same path for fear a monkey would try to pick her up by her hair. But we went back and said our goodbyes to Heidi soon after and felt great about giving them $80 US ($20 per visitor, and $20 for a t-shirt) in support of their monkey mission. Joel drove us into Chemuyil, where we really should have stopped for a meal (knowing what I know now), but instead we hailed a taxi back to Akumal for food and drinks and a swim in Akumal Bay.

Earlier on the trip, we had talked about the possibility of swimming with dolphins, one of the things you can do (or experiences you can buy) in this touristy part of Mexico. D. was creeped out by the idea; then, having seen them at Xcaret, the big eco-themed park between Akumal and Playa del Carmen, I too felt there would be something weird about being in a pen with a big, well-trained fish, something that didn't bother me in this context. Maybe it is the well-trained aspect that makes me uneasy about the dolphins: I wonder whether their natural instincts are muffled or altered by their training, like those of a young ensign. I wonder how the dolphins really feel about having a person plopped into their territory, a person they haven't come to know over time.

I found it a funny contradiction, looking back on our visit to the Jungle Place, to have gone inside a cage to experience wildness, but I am ever so glad I did.


We have a new word in our family's lexicon since returning from our recent sojourn. It tickles me and takes me back to our vacation in a second, like a new mnemonic for Mexico.

During the brief wait for our airport bus to leave Playa del Carmen, ending ten days of beach and sun and sightseeing in just the right mix, we madly shopped for street food (2 tacos, uno de relleno y uno de puerco; torta de cochinita, todos con una salsa de cebollas -- mmmm) and the requisite bottles of coumarin-free Mexican vainilla in the Bazaar de Dreck across the street. I bought a few packages of junk food from the snack-stand clerk in the bus station: corn chips in a Mexican brand (tasty) and a purple package containing a pair of those leaf-pastry-and-sugar cookies (rancid -- bad) (I know them in more bakeries as palmiers, or pig's ears). Last I asked for the "iSponch!" cookies, four to a package, each heaped with marshmallow and a dot of pink flavor. They looked like perfect snackage and entertainment for our kid on her trip home.

The clerk gave a little laugh as she handed me the package, a eyebrow-lifted haven't-heard-that-one-before smile, given with a nod. Only the next day when we looked at the package did my family and friends clue me in about the gringa loca I had really been, having read the initial character as an i instead of as the intended Hispanic inverted bang.

Now we say iSponch! (with the i making an ee sound, not the eye sound as in iPod) or iAnything-you-want-to-end-with-an-exclamation-point! We giggle, thinking of white sand and blue water and all the rest that went with it. (And I can't help being amused that there is a tie to another of my favorite words from our travels: malvavisco, which I always internally hear shouted in the booming voice of an arena announcer for some inexplicable reason -- maybe I need to invent a baseball player or some macho guy in one of my stories and name him Malvavisco].)

14 May 2008

And what a backyard it is!

Phew! Back from the Caribbean and gee howdy is my skin dried out -- twenty percent more leathery in just ten days!

I came home not thinking so much as I expected about the various highlights of the trip -- Jacques' condo, the daily blender drinks, the not-so-ominous "swimming with the fishes," the "ferrocarril" test, the mocking taxi driver ("Osiris?" which was quite hilarious, our interaction in retrospect almost the same kind of thing we'd experienced with the monkeys at the Jungle Place a couple of days earlier -- more on that in the next post), nor even all my favorite words (Chemuyil, semidescremada, malvaviscos, Xcacelito, and pretty much any word with the letter X in the Mayan language), but instead found myself dwelling on class and cultural divides that had been shown to me in a new light.

When I'd been in India, I had seen a kind of serenity in people that I now see led me to delude myself that there is less class envy among the people there, as do the book's characters Lola and Noni, who are for a time indulged when they put on all kinds of airs simply by virtue of being able to fly to London for a fresh stock of Marks & Spencer underwear every two years and convince themselves that their sherpa maid has less depth of feeling, that people in the servant classes arrange their affairs in a more economically based fashion and attachments are less profound there, only to find out that they're the ones who've been left behind on the banks without ever having been swept away by the currents of true love.

In Mexico I didn't feel any of that delusion whatsoever -- there were lots of people scrapping for all our bits of chump change and there's plenty of envy all over the place, everywhere you turn.

To read, I had brought a chewy detective book (Michael Connelly's Lost Light, which I started on the plane and thoroughly enjoyed, as I do all of 'em, all the way to the ending that I should have seen coming and made me cry) and Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss. Of the mountain of amazing Indian literature out there I have read only a tiny fraction of authors, and my favorite among them is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. I have also retained the near-physical sensation of oppressiveness of the weight of India's society and class consciousness from the stories of Rohinton Mistry. And Salman Rushdie paints marvelous tapestries, setting whirling tops of humanity aspin (yet I find there's always a remove, a layer of literary trickery that keeps me from feeling his characters' dilemmas as excruciatingly as other authors have made me do).

Now I have read another astonishing story, a horrifying and romantic tragedy about two products of their cultures' collective desires to leap across chasms of race and class, in Desai's book. I could not help of course thinking of all the people we rode the shuttle van to Tulum with, who go to work at all the resorts -- there are vans that zip up and down the coast all the way, air-conditioned to help keep the commuting workers cool in their polyester-blend uniforms. They also happen to be comfortable and interesting to use alongside the locals. (You don't get that exposure to other people's experience, I am guessing, when you are staying at the all-inclusive resorts with their continual watersports and multiple swim-up bars. (My favorite colectivo van was "Bety Y Paty's," the one with the little rubber chicken swinging from the rearview mirror and the driver's reflective sunglasses in the rear-view mirror. It was interesting in the same way to be in a place where using taxis is ordinary and part of daily life again. Like New York, it helps you mix things up more, thrust yourselves among each other.

The New York of the movies would have you think that everyone has a Lincoln Continental Town Car with tinted windows waiting for them on the street below; don't get me started on the stereotypes of Mexicans in SUVs in film. Seriously, I couldn't help noticing too on this trip my own astonishment at how many Mexicans drive their American-made SUVs to Akumal and vacation at the shore as we did. There is a thriving middle class in Mexico. And some of the people we met seemed genuinely interested in hospitality along the way -- and what a great place for those folks to be guides and charm the dollars out of the tourists at the same time by being a guide or a waiter or running a restaurant or hotel.

And reading of Biju's fictional adventures as an alien in New York and reading the story about the girls rescued from trafficking in The New Yorker are the things that really stay with me. It's kind of a quaint position to be: the big spender. But I haven't done anything in that culture that makes me matter. I've barely scratched the surface of their culture by going there myself and using my twenty phrases of Spanish that remain after all those years of schooling and then all those years without practice.

So a story read on a sojourn to a tropical place reminded me that I do shudder to think of life for the cleaners of hotels and restaurants in Cancun who every spring mop up a tide of what the college kids can't quite handle before they disappear home again with their legendary hangovers. I can't help thinking of the girls dancing in roadside strip joints who would rather not have been bars and worse in dens ruled by guns and money.

But perhaps it does help to spread this country's wealth around. Had a good laugh at taking our windfall that is Bush's lame-o attempt at a feel-good ending and lavishing them on the folks across the southern border. I had the same impulse before we went when I got some help with our yard. And it's one of the reasons I like going out to dinner, too. Gotta keep the flow going.

The oddness of thrusting yourself partway across the planet to see other people and generally never quite feel totally comfortable was in great evidence on this journey, but that is I suppose the sensation that makes travel so memorable.

That and the pictures.

More soon...

03 May 2008

My favorite Elbow

I posted some of this show report on the Gomez boards about last night's show at the Bluebird Theater, in Denver:

I only caught the tail end of Air Traffic's set (because of an ugly and in retrospect easy-to-avoid detour about two miles from the theater), but they sounded like they knew what they were doing up there. The crowd was enthusiastic, which I am always excited to see. I love when people open up to the opener.

I played with my camera and made some little movies. I'll have to figure out the easiest way to get them onto youtube, because some of them might be pretty good. I'll have to stitch them into a little montage. It will be short on the music but fun.

Mostly I danced and let the band's sounds wow me. I ended up parking myself right up at the foot of the stage and like I do at gomez shows felt like the perfect audience. I love the sonic textures they make, even if the sound was pretty sucky right up at the front. I loved being able to see the drummer because he is so much of what makes Elbow's stuff not just meander down some moody alleyway -- instead it goes somewhere. And he was having a blast, and so I was having a blast, and the rest of us were, too.

Only a couple of minutes were disrupted by obliviously chatting drinkers who had wandered down to the front. But I think Guy Garvey's glares at them while he was singing (how could he not notice the chatterboxes when everyone else down there was hanging on his every word?) and mine might have given them the clue to hie themselves back to the bar because it got nice and quiet again after that.

Such a good show -- I don't keep setlists but they played lots of the new album, which is great and I will run right out and get (because I forgot last night). And they played a few other faves of mine. "Leaders of the Free World" sounded arm-pumpingly good but that song always leaves me a little cold even though I share every last sentiment in it. Everything else they do gets me, though. Guy's a poet of sound and words and we're lucky they come six thousand miles to play for us.

Guy does seem like a nice guy, too. He gets down in the crowd and doesn't seem to mind as many cameras and cellphones in his face as friendly faces. Likes his drinks, for sure. (After he begged for drinks, asking all the while whether it was terrible to beg his audience members for drinks, someone sent up a couple of shots, in classy plastic cups, yum, and he was like a kid at christmas. "What's this?")

Before he started one song, Guy introduced it as "a song about buildings and solitude," after which he added wryly, "Aren't they all?" and started playing (as if to drive home his point) a completely different song from the one I thought was coming next.

In a quiet moment between songs a fellow in the audience chose to fill the space with an outsized yell, and Guy said, "I've noticed there are always one or two, um, bears, or one-man football crowds, in every audience." He paused a few beats and then said, "But we welcome everyone, people, bears, one-man football crowds, everyone," to which he got some nice bear yells in response. It seemed such a way to respond, with a yes instead of a no.

Everything culminated in the last song, "Grace Under Pressure," which as it always does called up the phrase "joyful noise" in my mind. The drums in that song just drive me wild, and I was digging the drumming while Guy went around shaking the hands of about everyone on the floor in front of him. But he looked over at me a couple of times, and then at the end, he walked right over to me and picked up my hand and kissed it. I couldn't help myself -- I took his hand and kissed it back. I'm still smiling.

p.s. This totally reminds me of the t-shirt I wore last night. The guitar-player kitten might even be the same one that's on my shirt, now that I look closely.