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Winter Guide 2005: Two Views of Mexico

November 2, 2005, 12:00 am
By
Heading south in winter for the pro with a mission and the novice with a sunburn.


Debauchery and Folk Music
By Joshua Martin

The game was over. Cruz Azul had won the soccer match, but I had no idea. I was unconscious on a couch, rendered horizontal by drinking a few too many ***image1***Cazadores and Frescas way too fast. Luis, our host for the evening, barged into the house from the front yard, where the TV was on cinderblocks and a few compadres had been watching the game.

"Cruz Azul!" howled Luis. "Cruz Azuuuuuuuuuul!"

I stirred from near-coma and felt a wash of nausea come over me. I hadn't been this drunk in a long time. And here I was in Iguala, Mexico, passed out on the couch of a guy I hardly knew. I looked over at my friend Tim, who was equally wrecked but was somehow sitting upright. Praying that Luis would ignore me, I lay as still as possible. Meanwhile, I had a case of the spins that were making me feel like I was inside an industrial dryer.

"Josue!" shouted Luis, calling me by my newly adopted Spanish name, more suited to the Mexican palate than my given one. "Joswaaaaaaaaaay!"

I grunted a response into the cushion in which my face was nuzzled, but I doubt he heard me. He grabbed my legs and tried to force me from slumber. I desperately wanted to tell him that any movement of my body was certain to induce vomit, but all I could come up with was "no me tocas"-don't touch me.

"No me tocas," I panted between deep inhalations through the nose. "Por favor! No me tocas!"

But it was too late. My biological response sprang quickly into action and sprayed havoc on my shirt, the couch and Luis' lovely white tiles-a style of flooring quite popular in the middle-class homes of rural Mexico.

My stomach relieved of its devils, my nausea instantly lifted. I opened my eyes to find a small horde of people staring at me. Luis' wife and two children, who had been absent for the evening, were now standing across the room. While the mother seemed amused at my condition, the two girls looked at this sick gringo with curiosity and concern. Luis glared at me and, within a beat, was dragging me into a bathroom. He deposited me under the shower nozzle.

The Mexican bathroom-if you've never been-puts utility before comfort. It took me weeks to figure out how to say "toilet seat" in Spanish so that I could ask for one at the front desk of my hotel. Even then, I don't think the hotel manager understood the urgency of my request, because I never got one. Most showers in Mexico are of the "open" variety, just a showerhead in the corner and a drain in the middle of the room. Many homes, especially in southern Mexico, lack hot water heaters.

I was blasted with liquid ice while Luis held me down and scrubbed my sullied shirt with a wire brush. He spoke to me sternly in Spanish using words that I was unfamiliar with, but I'm pretty sure he was telling me that he was unimpressed with my ability to handle tequila. I didn't argue.

***image2***I wasn't in Mexico to drink anybody under the table, although I certainly tried a number of times. Tim and I were in Iguala for a few days to study music with Luis' father, a great violinist named Angel Tavira. We had come to Mexico, for the fourth winter in a row, to learn the traditional music of this region, the Tierra Caliente. We fancied ourselves amateur ethnomusicologists, traveling the countryside in search of the old violinists who could still remember how to play. With Tim's fiddle and my guitar, we would absorb every note of this regional "calentano" music that we possibly could. And we did.

However, we never let our musical studies get in the way of cultural exchange. As we found out, music and alcohol are almost inextricable in Mexico. Every time we'd visit an old musician in some tiny mountain village, a kid would be dispatched to the local mescal distributor (a guy down the street with a barrel of moonshine) with an empty bottle to be filled for these unexpected foreign guests. The old men are almost always happy to see us-to take their violin out of its case for the first time in months or years and to play us the songs of their youth. When we accompany them, record them, take pictures of them and pay them for the music lesson, they're usually overjoyed and want to have a drink. It's as though this music simply can't be played without a mescal buzz.

***image3***In the early 1990s calentano music was on the brink of extinction. This passionate violin style had been a source of pride in the region for a century, ever since Juan Bartolo Tavira began accompanying his poetry with a harp in the late 1800s. Isaias Salmeron, "El Indio," came along shortly after and added a virtuosic violin to the new style, which soon became a staple for weddings and cantinas in the Tierra Caliente. But in the '90s, everyone had a CD player and was listening to two-dollar bootlegged copies of the latest Mexican pop schlock. Surviving calentano musicians, now senior citizens, could no longer support themselves and were forced to put away their violins. The music would die along with them.

Then, in 1996, a series of fortunate events brought the greatest living calentano violinist to Seattle for the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes. Juan Reynoso and his sons stunned the American musicians present for the concert. In his 80s, Reynoso played with a level of harmonic complexity and demonic intensity that aren't usually associated with Mexican folk music. One thing led to another and, pretty soon, a steady stream of gringo violin and guitar slingers were making the pilgrimage to Reynoso's hometown of Altamirano, at the northern tip of the state of Guerrero, for a chance to study with "El Maximo"-the master.

Now in his mid-90s, Juan Reynoso is still alive. I know because, for one month a year, Tim and I are at his house for a daily three-hour lesson. Having taken up the violin at age 6, he remains a walking encyclopedia of early 20th century Mexican music. Still actively composing, he plays us his new compositions so that we can transcribe them. When he was interviewed by the BBC a few years ago, he said that teaching his American students was the reason he was still alive-insurance that the music would live on long after he goes. He doesn't drink anymore, not just because of his age or the fact that his kidneys have been declared virtually non-functioning, but his wife is a Jehovah's Witness and would never allow it.

After our daily lesson, we stop by the bar where all the musicians hang out. They buy us a caguama, a large bottle of beer, and insist that we play some of the old songs that we've been learning. These guys don't quite understand why we'd come to this sleepy town to learn music of the past. They put down their accordions and bajo sextos, the tools of modern ranchero music, and listen intently to the music of their parents and grandparents-music that almost nobody plays anymore.

Back at Luis' house, I stagger to the front door. That cold water has brought me closer to sobriety and, with my newfound prescience, I vow off tequila for a while. When I see that his wife is scrubbing the evidence of my visit off the couch and the white tile floor, I apologize profusely, but she waves me off when I offer to help. Their two young daughters, violins in hand, look up from the sheet music that their grandfather, Angel Tavira, has given them. Still a little freaked out by the evening's events, they smile nervously at me. The music of the Tierra Caliente is in good hands.


A First-Timer's Mexico

By Jeremy Estes


Anticipating the fall of the hammer, when winter officially freezes the bejeezus out of everything in sight, me and mine decided to head south of the border for an attempt at recapturing the lost summer. In typical fashion, though, we avoided any tropical locales; in lieu of sandy beaches and hard bodies, we hit the mean streets of Juarez.

We traveled south, driven by the lead foot of my father-in-law, Tom; my mother-in-law, Juanita, rode shotgun. My wife, Nieves, and I kept the backseat warm.

We left Santa Fe late on Friday night and drove until we were tired of driving. We decided to stop in T or C for the night but a number of obstacles stopped our party train from crashing in comfort at a hotel; a county fair, football game, rocket science convention, an air show. Each stop, each shrugging desk clerk, made things more ridiculous. "It's like the Christmas story," I said. "Except none of us are virgins."

We found blues on the radio. It carried us past T or C, through Las Cruces and into Texas. I dozed off and woke up to Juanita pointing in the distance to a sea of lights. "Look, Mexico."

We kept driving until we found room at an inn outside of El Paso. The lobby was decorated in a Southwest-meets the Addams Family mash-up of plastic pumpkins signaling the impending arrival of Halloween. We stumbled into a one-room suite, with Nieves and me taking the fold-out couch.

I slept rough, the bed sucking me into its hungry middle. The change in weather was, I'm fairly certain, affecting my subconscious; I dreamed I overflowed a toilet at Clint Eastwood's house and ran around crying. Then, my dad helped me sop the whole mess up with towels.

The next morning was warm. We abandoned the jackets we brought with us and drove toward the border with the windows down. The whole area looked like a giant outdoor prison-barbed wire and floodlights protecting the homeland. The Rio Grande snaked along the highway. On one side, vehicles of affluence sped by; on the other sat shacks and outhouses.

We crossed the border-my first time out of the States-with little fanfare. The giant Mexican flag waved "hello." Mexico was the same, but different, a Twilight Zone where "Baby Got Back" bumping from expensive speakers in a rundown car is considered acceptable for a concerted cruise.

We secured a hotel room, then ate a late breakfast. With our bellies full, we headed to the Mercado Juarez where we walked in circles, haggling with vendors over blouses, shirts and, yes, a velvet Vegas Elvis painting. We followed Juanita through the maze of stands, deflecting the calls-in Spanglish-of vendors very interested in selling us belts. One man followed us, insisting I needed a hat. I pointed to Juanita and said, "She's the boss," hoping he'd get I had to keep up with her.

"Who's the boss? She's the boss? Hey, Bruce Springsteen!" he said. I laughed, almost tripping on a little girl and tumbling into a table of knock-off Spider-man heads.

After the market, we crossed the street to cool off and eat popsicles in the shade. While we were resting and watching the traffic go by, a man offered to draw a caricature of Nieves and me. Tom paid and we posed, periodically flashing goofy grins and peering lovingly into each other's eyes. With our newlywed status we expected some sort of bride and groom get ups, maybe a ***image4***transvestite theme. Instead, I was depicted as a muscle-bound meathead, Nieves my buxom, bikini clad companion. A sailboat dotted the horizon.

It was an idealized version of our weekend getaway, our bodies perfect, golden. There was no boat or bikini in reality, but a few palm trees were standing tall outside our hotel window and a swimming pool sparkled below. Having left our swimsuits at home, we sat poolside in our pants and T-shirts. Nieves and her mom knitted; her dad smoked communist contraband. I stuck my nose in a book.

Later, we drove through an outdoor market, almost killing and maiming a small percentage of the Juarez population as they darted across the narrow streets, apparently fearless.

We opted to get out and walk.

Music blared from loud speakers. Shoes were stacked high to our left, Tommy Hilfiger knock-offs to our right. I felt the world closing in, my fear of crowds mixing with a splash of social anxiety disorder for a potent neurotic cocktail. We passed a carniceria where piles of strange meat gave off an inviting smell.

We walked and walked, taking in the heat, enjoying the sun. There it was still more than just decoration for the sky; it warmed us, made us feel good.

We came back to the hotel, feet aching, our legs stiff. We were sweating summer sweat-sticky, pulsing with heat. It's the sweat of relief, rejuvenation. My internal clock began clanging, gears spinning, hands circling 'round and 'round. "This isn't good," it said. "That time is over." It was right.

That night it rained and everything cooled. Lightning flashed up in the mountains, police sirens wailed in the distance. I stood out on the balcony and shivered, remembering what was coming. And what was over.

The next day we packed up and headed north; the mercury fell with each passing mile. As we got closer to home we pulled our jackets-rumpled and almost forgotten-from the back of the car.

The weekend was over, and so was the illusion. Waiting for us at home were months of thicker clothes, coats, maybe even socks at bedtime. Now, we'll sleep with the windows closed and the fire dying. We'll sleep while the earth is cold and the sun shines its warmth on more deserving parts of the world.

 

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