Saturday, September 14, 2013

Altiplano Encounters

La Hacienda on the Road to Muñoz
Marie never tired of stopping to sketch the landscape of the high desert surrounding us. It was often on bicycle to Muñoz, a nearby pueblo, to check our e-mails at the butcher shop/internet café that the scene was most striking. I would often be in front, pedaling hard on the uphill slope in hopes of beating the mid morning heat. When I looked back, I would see Marie straddling her bicycle, sketchbook in hand, capturing the moment.
There were two roads leading to Muñoz, a little traveled, bumpy, dirt camino that was scenic and peaceful, unless, that is, a bull had gotten out of the corralled area that ran the length of the camino to Muñoz. It happened more than once. Several locals had warned us that if we encountered one bull in the road between our destination and us, we best turn around, and fast. A bull alone, it appears, is more likely to attack than bulls in a group. We never decided to see if that was true or not. The size of the creatures and the fact that el toro de lidia was raised to fight in the corridas, was enough proof for us.
The second route, the one most frequently taken, passed in front of an old hacienda before arriving at Muñoz. The bulls were usually in the pasture grazing, but the fences were sturdier and in better condition due to the fact that there was more traffic on the asphalt road. It was also a frequent watering point before starting an uphill pedal that could be quite tiring with the heat and the wind. Again, el Popo and Itza were often in view. There was starkness to the landscape, high desert terrain that was dry, and at times, extremely dusty. Yet there was a definite beauty to it, maguey and nopal cactus scattered about, heat waves quivering above the blacktopped road, and sheep and bulls grazing leisurely behind the hacienda fences. It made going to Muñoz a treat, a journey through a forgotten land that maintained an undeniable authenticity and flavor that characterized Tlaxcala. In the sketch at the top of this page Marie once again reflects: “When I am here, on the road to Muñoz, with this countryside in front of me, I know why I am here!"
Muñoz was a pueblo a bit larger than Atlangatepec. It had amenities that Atlanga did not: a bakery, a few small torta restaurants, a hardware store, and two butcher shops. One of these butcher shops belonged to our friend, Arturo. He had spent a few years in Chicago and enjoyed speaking a bit of English now and then. His brother, Luis, had a small internet café connected to the butcher shop, about eight computers that were all occupied once school was out at 1:00 pm. It was a surrealistic sight, a side of pork hanging from a hook through the doorway between the two businesses. Muñoz was situated at over 8,000 ft, and the cold wind that passed from the open butcher shop storefront through the internet café, keep the meat fresh and our stays short. It was convenient, however, when our dinner menu included carnitas, something Marie made once in a while, accompanied by a delicious pico de gallo made with cilantro and chiles manzano from the greenhouse in back of our house.
Marie's Laguna Sketch
The road going the other direction from Atlangatepec brought us to la Laguna, a bird refuge on the north side of the pueblo. We went there often on our bikes, passing in front of pastures of grazing bulls and an old hacienda situated in the high desert landscape surrounded by maguey and nopales. It was a very peaceful place with fantastic cloudscapes and locals out fishing in small rowboats among the high reeds where the birds nested and the fish sought cooler water. It was a place stuck in time, cowboys on horseback and shepherds sitting in the shade watching their animals graze without a care in the world. We would seek out the shade of a
Deek's Munoz & Laguna Sketches
juniper tree and start sketching. El Popo and I
Iztaccíhuatl were almost always in view. One day we met Jose, a young Tlaxcalteca on the road. He was a pulquero, a person who tended to the maguey plants and made pulque, a traditional alcoholic beverage that dates back to the Aztecs. We talked for a while and he invited us to taste some of his home brew, and we gladly accepted. In the sketch to below, Marie noted that as Jose took us around to see more of the plants, she stayed behind to draw the flower of the maguey, which from her perspective, seemed to emerge right out of “La Malinche”. Our day with Jose was one of those events that happened time and time again, a random encounter that led to a personal connection that endured.
Jose, el Pulquero

There were many such encounters in Atlangatepec that year. It was a very small pueblo, and being the only “gringos” in the area, we were under constant scrutiny. We wanted to meet people and become part of the community, something much more delicate and complicated than we had imagined. There were definite cultural stumbling blocks, and we tripped more than once in our effort to form friendships with the locals. But for the most part we were successful.
One of the first friendships formed was with Jema and Rafael (Rafa). They had a small dairy farm with about fifteen cows. We would walk to their farm to buy fresh milk and some of the delicious “queso frescos” (fresh cheeses) that Jema made. They also were “outsiders”, having moved to Atlanga fifteen years earlier to help establish an agricultural cooperative. When the project ended, they decided to stay on. Rafa was a veterinarian who turned his knowledge to raising dairy cows. Jema learned how to make the cheese and went door-to-door selling her products. Over time, we became good friends. Marie asked Jema if she could sketch her before we went back to the Sates, and Jema agreed.
Jema & Rafa
They invited us for dinner one night and after a delicious meal and a few shots of tequila, we went to the living room to listen to Rafa play music and for Marie to sketch Jema. On the page she wrote: “Gracias Jema for letting me sketch you. Sorry that I was not able to capture your true beauty. Gracias Rafael for sharing your love of the music and songs from Durango. And to both of you, gracias for your friendship”. She had a high quality copy made for them, put it in a simple frame, and gave it to them as a gift of our friendship. They were very touched. When I look at this sketch, I can still hear Rafa singing and taste the ricos taquitos that Jema prepared for us that night. The same is true of almost all of the sketches in Marie’s sketchbooks. They are moments captured with sensitivity, emotion, and simplicity that are timeless.
Chon & his Azteca Group
We also developed a strong friendship with Clara and Concepción (Chon) and their two young children. Clara raised chickens and eggs to sell in the organic market in Tlaxcala. Chon worked in his father’s fields growing organic vegetables. He had decided that he did not want to leave his pueblo to go to Canada to work like his brother. He preferred to have less money and live in a simple house instead of leaving his family for long periods to go to “el otro lado”. They struggled financially, but were happy. Chon was leader of an Aztec dance group that performed in nearby pueblos on special occasions. He invited us to a practice session at his house one afternoon.
We had been to their house several times before, but never to hear them play music. They told us that the music they were playing was to ask the gods for a bountiful harvest. Marie settled in to sketch and I to take photographs to give the group for promotional purposes. Chon’s daughter, Maria, sat next to Marie with her pencil and sketchbook. Under her sketch of Chon Marie wrote, “Maria is sitting next to me drawing. Too bad she doesn’t have the color pencils I gave her yesterday”. Maria sat intently and sketched her father and his friends. She captured them quite well. She had seen them play many times before, but perhaps this time she saw them in a new light.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Beginning of the End

Walking the Road to Paradise, Atlangatepec, Tlaxcala 2008 
Beauty, like happiness, occurs frequently.
Not a day passes by in which we don't, for an instant, live in paradise. Jorge Luis Borges

2007-2008 was a year of travel for us. I was beginning my retirement and we had the upcoming nine months laid out nicely in front of us. We had found some very good renters for our home in Corvallis and everything seemed to be falling into place perfectly.  Marie had a full calendar of sketching workshops, Brittany and Provence in the summer, and Michoacan, Mexico in the fall. Wedged in between them was our arrival in Tlaxcala to set up our new home in Atlangatepec.
Aug 07 tractor and landscape sketches

We left for France in early June 2007 for the sketching workshop in Brittany, my first opportunity to participate in one of Marie’s workshops. As it turned out, I was living proof that Marie’s approach worked! My day one sketch made a first grader look like a professional. One month later I sketched another tractor and another landscape. The results were more to my liking, and Marie loved the progression. I became her new workshop example of “don’t try to learn to do it, just do it!” From that time onward, Marie and I sketched together. Her passion for sketching was contagious and her approach to sharing it was gentle and humane. I was hooked!
Oct 2007 Landscape
Oct 2007 Tractor
 We returned to Oregon in late July to prepare for our move to Mexico.
The previous winter, we had visited our friends, Paco and Alejandra, in Tlaxcala. They had a center for sustainable resources and alternative construction in Tlaxco, and also a house they were interested in renting in Atlangatepec (aka Atlanga), where they were currently living. It was an old granary that had been converted into an eco-home by Alejandra, an architect who was devoted to environmental education and alternative building techniques. Beside the main living area, there was a studio space on the roof and a cob and hay bale bedroom with a dry, composting toilet a few meters behind the house. There was also a nice greenhouse area with a good garden space as well as some gigantic manzano chile trees that were in full production.
Unlike most other houses in the area, it had a wood stove, something quite desirable, as Atlanga was at an altitude of over 8000 feet. But it had a real charm to it, and since Marie and I were seriously considering living outside the US for a while, it was a very tempting possibility. I was ready to jump at the opportunity, but Marie hesitated. She was tired and preparing the house for renters seemed overwhelming to her. It was my recent retirement and enthusiasm to “hit the road” again that made her agree to the move. In retrospect, it was the wrong decision. Little did we know when we left for Tlaxcala in late 2007, that it was the beginning of the end. Upon our return to the States after our nine-month stay in Mexico, we discovered that Marie’s cancer had returned, this time into her bones.

Ink Strokes on Paper

Beauty, like happiness, occurs frequently.
Not a day passes by in which we don't, for an instant, live in paradise. Jorge Luis Borges

Framed in weathered wood,
El Popo spews ash and plumes of billowy smoke
into the azure blue bitterness of the January morning.
Huddled around the radiant crackling
of an old wood stove
we sip steaming cups of Cordoba coffee
warming our innards with bowls of avena
as the frost melts off the high desert landscape.
The stark beauty gives her respite
from the angoisee that is stalking her,
A reason for being
in the Tlaxcala highlands
when she wonders why
she is there.
Ink strokes on paper are the best medicine
for the darkness and pain
that have crept into her spirit
And her bones
without our knowing.
Beauty, like happiness, occurs frequently,
Ink strokes on paper are moments in paradise.

But that time in Tlaxcala was a very productive period for Marie. It was full of ups and downs, highs and lows. There were unexplainable moments when Marie could not understand why she was not happy in Mexico, why she felt this suffocating grip on her that blocked out the light. Throughout her sketchbooks of this period, her pages are an emotional roller-coaster. There appeared to be a constant struggle between the natural beauty that surrounded us, and the inner struggle that weighed so heavily on Marie the entire time that we were there. 
In the sketch to the right she wrote: “Am I going to write anything on this page? Yes, I have something to say, without altering the grandeur of the landscape! Coming back from Muñoz by the dirt road. I get off of my bike to better appreciate the beauty of the countryside. A warm breeze, a golden prairie, and off in the distance, a shepherd on horseback. To the south, el Popo and his lover have now disappeared, to the right the Malinche, superb and grandiose. I’m having a wonderful time!” She goes on the write: Today is another proof that I know how good I can feel here.” 
We were constantly captivated by the stark beauty of the altiplano. How many times did Marie sketch el Popo, each time as if the first? Our breakfast each morning was highlighted by el Popo, framed in our window as we sat huddled around the woodstove sipping coffee. On clear days there was magic in the air, the nippy crispness of winter frosting el Popo in whiteness while steam rose from our morning cups of warmth and the bowels of Mother Earth in the distance.
El Popo from our window
It was ever present, majestic, and grandiose, something we never took for granted. Legend has it that the brave warrior, Popocatépetl, died of grief at the death of his lover, Iztaccíhuatl, and the gods turned them both into mountains so that they could finally be together. It is said that Popcatépetl still spews smoke and ashes to show that he remains at the side of his beloved Itza.  It all seems very possible as you see the two of them side by side on the horizon; love has no bounds and nature no limits.

(To be continued)