Bienvenidos! Welcome!

Thanks for visiting Daughter of Corn. I hope you enjoy the essays and thoughts about the journeys of a writer in San Miguel....who ends up in Iowa City!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

El fin de ano

As the end of 2010 approaches, I contemplate my year of recreating my life.  Last year I spent five months in San Miguel, and seven months in Iowa City.  My desires to redefine myself as a writer took some unexpected routes.  Yet this is what risk-taking entails:  you never know if that decision to leap will pay off in the way you perceived it might.  For instance, I didn't stay in San Miguel,  Did I imagine I would return to Iowa City so early?  I knew it was a possibility, but there were so many unimaginable occurrences in San Miguel that I had to re-evaluate my vision.  Am I sorry I returned home to the heartland?  No.

I could never articulate the whole of my fragility when I did come back, for I truly was alone and starting over.  Yet the investment of my time in Mexico is where the risk-taking proved its worth.  As in every time spent away from your home, I gained a plethora of information as well as an increase in writing as a discipline.  My dream of beginning a blog was realized in Iowa, but seeded in San Miguel.
The translations I did of my poet friend from Guanajuato, Juan Manuel, are to be published in a literary journal out of Austin.   In truth, I have gained a momentum, and increased my literary contacts.  After all, I now live in the City of Literature.  And, as a friend counseled when I was debating my return, I don't have to share my quarters with fleas!!

It is a great thing to live in uncertainty--and greater when you have chosen a path that facilitates this lifestyle.  But what if the soul really does expand when you choose to honor and respect its primary importance in  your life?  What truly happens to those who, like the Fool in the tarot deck, step over the cliff, and look up, not down?  Sometimes I observe closely my fellow human beings who have not chosen my lifestyle for the answers to that question.  I often see a kind of happiness which holds its roots in the certainty that they will never even approach that cliff.  Control and management constitute the thread of their existence.  Their happiness, however, does not encompass an expansive comprehension of "the other",  those whose circumstances do not equal their own.  We are in an age where the gap between such distinct lives, the secure and the insecure, is stretching to a point of consequence.

2010 was a significant year of changes for millions of people in the world.  The hope for 2011 is that we can live with those changes in hope and dignity.  That I can live with the changes in my life, with hope and dignity.

Art collage copyright 2010 Corinne J.Stanley

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

¿Cuando vas a regresar?

When my December trip ended, I gathered up some of my clothes and put them in a large plastic bag.  The area where I stayed was near an arroyo in a very humble neighborhood, and I had noticed one lady almost everyday.  She was the city sweeper for the neighborhood.  Dressed in a pumpkin orange jumpsuit, she shuffled along the path near the arroyo with a primitive, twiggy broom in her hands.  The woman looked about my size, so I approached her with my bag of pajamas and sweaters.,"Senora, tengo ropa que me gustaria darle a usted, como parece mas o menos la misma talla come yo.  Ya me voy a los Estados Unidos."  --Ma'm, I have some clothes I'd like to give to you, since you seem about the same size as me.  I'm returning soon to the States."

 The woman looked up at me with some confusion.  I suppose she wasn't used to strangers handing her a bag, much less speaking to her during her shift.  However, she took the bag and smiled just a little.

The following day I met the dignified empleada who cleaned the American landlady's sprawling house, including my tiny apartment.  Perhaps she had heard about the bag of clothes--news travels fast in these barrios--but the senora gave me a present of her own.

"¿Cuando vas a regresar?"  she called down to me from the upper balcony.  I looked up as if I had been summoned.  "Senora, digame, ¿cuando vas a regresar?" she repeated

"When are you returning?"

Those words haunted me for a year.  I felt like the woman was a spiritual messenger, peering down at me with her serious eyes and thick grey hair, urging me to respond to her call.

And, of course, I did return.  But the path of volver is often a tricky one.  I returned in order to honor the writer within, and to be in a place that I had loved dearly.  What I discovered, senora, was that this return  was the time for garnering information. Not necessarily was it the final journey. The groundwork for my future, perhaps, for now I have a blog and a poetry book about to be published.  I am waiting for some answers, here in my northern prairie.

Nunca se sabe.  We never know why we are here, really.  There are secrets palpitating within our hidden selves;  there are mysteries which refuse to be known until the right time....there are unexpected gifts to be had along the path, a look in an eye, an outstretched arm.

Friday, December 10, 2010

La navidad y San Miguel

The festivities in San Miguel during la Navidad are truly spectacular, though some traditions are fading fast.  Once I rented a room in a very humble neighborhood near the San Juan de Dios market. I loved going to the open stalls set up just for the season. Greenery and colored paper balls, as well as sparkling cardboard angels and stars--but most of all, the brightly painted nacimientos made from clay prove to be popular buys for the season.  I have purchased many a miniature shepherd and diablo, as well as the proverbial hermitano, or hermit, who stands firmly in the nativity scene representing the search for wisdom.   Frequently accompanied by a round cave situated behind him, the hermit can retreat from the sly, red devil found perching on the cave's rooftop.

To make my solitary Christmas more comforting, I created a nacimiento by placing the folkloric ceramic figures on a small table in my tiny room.  I hung a large, oval green and red paper ornament from the top of the entryway and draped strings of green and fushia foil garlands around the room. No baby Jesus yet, as el Nino Dios only appears in the Mexican nativity scene on la Noche Buena, or the night he is born, at midnite.

One evening as I arrived home a small group of peregrinos or pilgrims walked by my door, singing the posada songs, and carrying flat cardboard pieces with the holy family glued on top.  Younger children waved sparklers in the air, and one of them quickly handed me a sparkler with a grin.  Entranced by the sincerity of the procesion, as well as the devotion it represented, I smiled back, wishing I knew the words to the traditional songs.  Somewhere along the path the group would knock on a door and enter into a celebracion of  warm tamarind and guayaba ponche and pinatas filled with candies, oranges and peanuts. Contrast this image with my own culture's frenetic campaign to buy at el mall and it isn't surprising to discover that many Mexicans are uninspired by an American Christmas.

What I primarily noticed that December was the presence of human beings on the streets--for there were groups in el jardin selling tickets for Christmas events, other more lavish procesiones walking uphill, and pastorelas sprinkled at schools and traditional churches.  Once, in the distant past, I came upon a pastorela or retelling of the Christmas story at the Oratorio church near the main market. Shepherds arguing, little diabolitos attempting to sabotage the Christmas tale and St. Michael swooping down to save the day comprised a compelling performance.  So much life, so much vibrancy for a season brimming with glittering events for family as well as strangers weave a true spiritual celebration in the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

El corazon within the Darkness

Winter has placed her hands over the land and is keeping me in stillness, giving me time to contemplate the heart which marked my journey to San Miguel.  When I was writing my stories in the Apartamento Rojo, staring out the glass doors at the clear view of the Enchanted City, I never gave one thought to the Iowa winters.  Strangely, though the last few weeks have been largely focused on bracing myself for the cold with the purchase of scarves, boots, and pairs of gloves, I am not dismayed about enduring the long months of Iowa snow and ice.  Instead, I feel fortunate.  Indeed, I have never felt more fortunate in my life.

When I crossed the border into Laredo a year ago, I noted the startling change in ambience immediately. Though San Miguel is spreading out into the stretches of its outskirts, new complexes being built by mostly foreign bidding, the truth is Mexico continues to be a country where people are living on the edges of survival.  As I drove south, half-built or abandoned adobe houses the size of an American garage sprinkled the paisaje.  It wasn't until I reached the lush bajio of Guanajuato that I felt hope for the stricken landscape.

The turning point of my decision as to whether my stay would be six months or longer came through the search for reasonably priced and comfortable living space.  After leaving the Valle del Maiz I searched in vain for a place I could afford, and ended up sharing space with a colony of fleas.  And  although I did eventually find a very lovely apartment,  I became intimate with the chameleon character of fortune.

One of my favorite sayings is "There but for fortune go I" but in San Miguel I traveled roads I never thought to walk upon.  It took me a long time to comprehend that paying six dollars an hour to teach English at the Universidad de Guanajuato extension in San Miguel was average pay in Mexico. My heart collage, however, represents a particular "fortune" one finds in Mexico: vibrancy, colors which startle you into an aliveness that an office cubicle infamously disregards.  Why do people come to Mexico, if not for this?  Why did I return?  We want to be rocked into an awareness, to return to the sense of tactile and visual excitement.  And aren't we fortunate to participate in this culture? And are we aware of the level of poverty which so many Mexicans contend with on a daily basis?

Yesterday I ventured to the mall to find my last purchase: plush slippers to warm my increasingly cold feet at night.  I recalled what my students had discovered in interviews with Latinos, their sense that Americans were too materialistic.  I found myself feeling quite appalled at not just the intent to "shop till you drop", but the amount of meaningless merchandise for sale.  I thought about my students, working, one and sometimes two jobs, single mothers and young men in trouble with the law.  I thought about my friend who teaches first graders, and how one of them got a toy from Goodwill for his birthday.  And I went home, without my slippers.  Warm socks will do just fine.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Returning : Once More San Miguel

Taking a break from Winnie's story, I now return to the theme of returning....for precisely one year from today, I arrived on the doorstep of my dear friend Maria, in the colonia de Balcones, with my Ford Focus casi explotando with books, clothes, shoes, and boxes. It was a glorious Thanksgiving morning, and I had made the journey safe from Iowa--what more could I be thankful for?  Perhaps the fuchsia bougainvilleas gracing the stone walls of Maria's patio or the keen warmth of a southern sun.

I had no idea what was in store for me in the next six months, and my innocence allowed me to have a true adventure, one in which I encountered the unexpected sometimes with joy, but more often with pangs of disappointment and confusion, for this was a journey of a different sort than what I had planned.  This was a journey of gathering information, of finding my truth in ways I had not prefigured.  

And today, which is really, just another day in which gratitude awaits our acknowledgement, I can say with all my heart, that the Mexican people were the centerfold of my learnings.  Recently I had my Iowa Spanish students do a "cultural engagement" activity, in which they were required to interview a Latino in the community.  More than one student wrote about the concern their subject shared with them about our American culture.  It seems they viewed the United States as being too materialistic, and not the mecca most people imagine immigrants are pining for.  I was reminded of my experiences with my Mexican friends in San Miguel....listening intently to my words, speaking with great compassion and revealing a hidden philosophy towards life that brightened my own.  Once, when I fell down on the hard, slick sidewalk, two Mexican women gently picked me up, assuring me that they, too, had fallen.  They spoke with such gentility I have never forgotten their kindness.  When I was practically living in my car, because of reasons that now seem absurd, Amalia took my hand with tears in her eyes, exclaiming how at "estas alturas" we shouldn't have to go through such difficulties.  My memories are brimming with such tender encounters.  

In Mexico feelings matter and are greatly respected because the people are accustomed to living comfortably with how they feel. During my most precarious times I received  advice from friends that didn't seem like advice because it was thoughtful and caring.  Nowhere have I found the heart beating more palatably than in Mexico.  

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


            When you come upon a scene that is completely unexpected and enormously outside your personal experience, incredulity rises to protest.  How can this be?  In the midst of your amazement, lies the small shape of your own world.  Sacsayhuaman, with rounded, eighteen-foot stones that meet the eye in staunch solidarity had stretching walls which undulated in ancient defiance. Uncannily, I thought of my father as I stared at the phenomenal ruins. 
            Miguel Ángel gave us a brief history of the site:  originally settled around 1100 AD by the pre-Incan Kilke culture, Sacsayhuaman was said to be a fortress.  “You can’t even slip a sheet of paper between the stones, they fit so tight,” he claimed.  Leaning against the giant stones, I sensed my own, tight self, yearning not just to make things right with Miguel Ángel and his family, but also to make something right deep within my soul.  Why was it that the image of my father was invoked at the strange, haunting ruins?  I thought for a moment about how Miguel Ángel had compared its spiraling shape to the ruins of Native American Kivas in New Mexico, each formation imitating the interior of a corncob when it is cut in two.  My father, the corn breeder, would have liked that comparison.
            After Miguel Ángel left, promising to send a taxi our way in an hour, Diane and I strolled through the countryside, each of us contemplating the pastoral scene set against the hills which rose up in green mounds behind the rock fortress.  A couple of children herding goats drifted by, and Diane chatted with them while I sat on a flat rock, gazing up at the scintillating sun.  Tomorrow we were planning on going to Machu pichu.  What would we discover in those ancient ruins, whose history has embodied the essence of Mystery since its recent, twentieth century discovery?

Por Fin, Machu pichu
            We took the train to a little town called Aguascalientes, and stayed in the largest youth hostel I have ever seen.  It reminded me of a big, cement YMCA dormitory.  Because we wanted to beat the tourist buses, Diane and I woke up at dawn and walked the two miles to the ruins, following the railroad tracks and the rising sun. 
            To be able to walk about in such antiquity alone, accompanied by the silky breath of wind and caressing sun, is an undeniable privilege.  Although I’ve been fortunate to visit several pre-Colombian ruins in Latin America, only a few have evoked a strong presence of God.  Machu pichu is one such place. Even though I’d read that the city was a sacrificial site where virgins were tossed off Huayna pichu, the jagged mountain that gazes down upon the ruins, I still felt a spiritual pull within. Machu pichu was the perfect place to contemplate the whys and the hows of my very presence in Peru.  I knew that my role as Winnie’s messenger to her son was only a pretext, a reason for looking at my own shakey relationship with family.  Why, for instance, had I decided to come to Ecuador in the first place?  Did my psyche require thousands of miles to feel safe from their understated critiques of who I was? When I sayed at the Santa Clara pension in Quito I frequently met young people who traveled all over South American, accumulating one amazing experience after another, stories of risk and danger and admirable feats. Was I destined to be such a person?  More importantly, is this where I wished to place my fragile self-esteem, seeking the approval my family would never render in the admiring eyes of a more pubic “family”?
              At one point I went directly to the most sacred area of the site, which was a kind of altar/sun dial, and, ignoring the knotty rope that warned tourists not to approach any further, I sat down in the center.  I did this not because I was trying to be funny or rebellious, but because an unfathomable force drew me to its core. It was as if I had been asked to enter into a prayer.

            “Well, are we going to do it?”  I asked Diane, as we both gazed up at the towering Huayna pichu. 
            “Corinne, how can we not try and climb that mountain?  I mean, y’all know if we don’t, we’d always wonder what it would be like to stand at the top.”            I looked at Diane with open admiration.  She’d already explained to me about the weakness of her lungs, due to her mother’s history of smoking while she was pregnant.  The fact that she was so willing to attempt the climb inspired me greatly.   I already knew that part of the trip entailed holding onto swaying ropes as you pulled yourself up the steep side of the mountain.
            “Vamanos! “ I exclaimed, and we set off to climb Huayna pichu.  To this day, I am grateful for the adventuresome spirit of my colleague.  One of my most cherished photographs is of the two of us, grinning as we sit on the edge of that great mountain.  I am wearing and a red and white striped t-shirt, as well as a black felt hat, typical of the Andean natives, with a colorful band circling the rounded top.  Diane has a luminous smile that seems to stretch clear across the photo. 
            We took the train back to Cuzco that evening, and arrived to the Altiplano Holel exhausted but content.  I didn’t once think of Miguel Ángel during the two days, except to acknowledge, with some surprise, that he didn’t make an appearance.  However, after one more day in Cuzco, I began to think about him with renewed interest.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Lord of the Earthquake

Lord of the Earthquake
            Because we were traveling during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, Cuzco was brimming with festivities.  One surprising occurrence was the desfile for the Lord of the Earthquakes, a very ancient procesión that sat dearly in the hearts of the native people. I found it odd yet significant that the Black Christ statue, which was carried by solemn clergy, was preceded by a military band, and the mayor of Cuzco. Soldiers marched briskly at the end of the procession. The narrow sidewalks were crowded with human figures, straining to watch the parade, and the streets themselves were decorated with vibrant Easter scenes, spectacularly designed using flower petals and colored sawdust.   So intense was this particular celebration that when I needed to cross the street, people elbowed me disapprovingly for my interruption.  It wasn’t until later that I realized Cuzco was notorious for having frequent earthquakes.  In fact, a month after I left the city, an enormous quake destroyed much of the downtown area. 
            As I watched the passion of Christ being enacted with such personal investment, I found myself thinking about how mystery contains an element of danger, created by the very act of not knowing what’s to come; intrigues, and sudden twists to events, like an unknown man coming towards you out of a blanket of fog, calling your name. What unexpected scenarios had yet to unfold, in this mountain city, bursting with the colorful native dress of the Peruvian indigenas, and the languid stroll of llamas carrying firewood down narrow callejones?
            One morning Diane and I decided to take a tour of the Valle Sagrado,
a circular route around Cuzco that included several pre-Incan ruins and small villages.  Fortunately, we had a native guide, who told us leyendas and histories of the Inca people that weren’t found in traditional textbooks.  With animated gestures, short, stocky Dona Julia informed us that the ancient Inca lived with their prospective partner for a full year before getting married. During this trial period, the woman drank a special tea, which prevented her from getting pregnant.  Another informative story about Inca traditions was their dependency upon quinoa, a grain which can be found in health food stores today.  Quinoa is an excellent source of protein, our guide stated, and tradition held that after seeing how tall and strong the Inca were, the Spanish forbade them from growing the grain.   As a result, their health greatly deteriorated.  Though I found her stories captivating, I wasn’t convinced about the source of Dona Julia’s information.
            True to the series of serendipitous meetings we’d had with Guajiro, the very minute we stepped out of the van in the tiny village of Pisac, we noticed Miguel Ángel crossing the street with a young girl whose luxurious black hair rippled in the brilliant Andean sun.
            “Now this is definitely getting to be strange, Diane.  I mean, we are forty minutes outside of Cuzco! “  She agreed, her light brown eyes widening in disbelief.  And as we entered the Rincon de la Inca for our group luncheon, I began to remember, not without some trepidation, the numerous dreams that had been haunting my sleep….dreams about Miguel Ángel.

            Every night I was plagued by surrealistic images rattling my psyche. In one dream Miguel Ángel appeared deformed, like a shrunken, dwarf-like creature, flanked by both parents.  With tense faces, his mother and father were speaking but Miguel Angel acted as if they weren’t present.  In another dream Winnie appeared and spoke to me. “This is my son, Corina, “ she stated solemnly as she gestured toward Miguel ÁngeI.  I woke up, unable to fall asleep for hours.
            Thus, the Mystery became a painful, rather incomprehensible burden, as well as a spiritual mission.  How was I to convince Winnie’s son to return to the safety of his family?  For it became more and more obvious that all was not well in the world of Miguel Ángel.  For one thing, he seemed to incorporate the essence of his nickname, ubiquitously appearing in every corner of Cuzco and the surrounding area, shifting from one place to another like the restless wind that swept through the cobblestone streets.  He was a drifter, someone who yearned for his center, his eje, to give him future direction.  Then one afternoon Miguel Angel offered to take Diane and I to the great ruins on the edge of the city, Sacsayhuaman.  We rode in a taxi, Miguel Ángel in front, and Diane and I sitting in the back.  This time he wasn’t asking for any monetary remuneration for his services.  Instead, he kept turning around, and talking to me, with great agitation, about the ring.
            “Do you know the history of this ring?  Did you know my mother took it from me, without my permission?  She just smiled, and took it from my finger!”
His crystal blue eyes lit up, as he searched for an explanation.  “Why has this ring come back to me now?  Why did my brother send it with you?  Why now, Corina?”
            I looked at his anxious face, noting for the first time the hollowed cheeks and thin lines creasing his eyes 
            “I don’t know,” I replied, with some passion of my own.  “Truly I don’t, but maybe it has something to do with your family wanting you to return.”
            Miguel Angel paused for a moment, his eyes drifting.
            “How much would you pay me for this ring, Corina?”
            “What!” I exclaimed, just as the taxista swerved over a large bump in the road.
            “Miguel Ángel, I don’t want to buy your ring.  Why are you asking me this?”
            Seeing my distress, he quickly changed the subject.
            “Look—there are the stones!”  We followed his gaze, and saw a row of immense boulders that stood like mammoth, prehistoric beings, waiting for our arrival.  

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Ring

Dear Readers:
I continue to publish the excerpts of my cuentito, without knowing if anyone is really reading it, let alone enjoying the story! The Andes and Miguel Angel move forward in narration.....
The Ring
            A mist began to hover in the air, blurring the stars as we quickly headed toward the centro.  Diane wanted to have a bite to eat before we returned to our hotel, and I agreed.  During my conversation with Rodrigo, I’d noticed that the ring was starting to work its way out of the envelope.  Worried, I carefully removed the ring and examined it with interest.  Etched with strange figures of animals and people, the thick silver band exuded a primitive yet appealing energy.  After placing it on my index finger, and carefully folding the paper into my jean pocket, I followed Diane into the Casa Café, a restaurant she’d picked for our evening meal.
            Because of Peter Jackson’s masterful rendition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there’s hardly a person alive who doesn’t relate to the magical quality of a ring which can save—or destroy-- the world.  In 1986, though I’d read all of Tolkien’s work, the sensational act of delivering a ring to its rightful owner had not quite made an impact.  In fact, it took an hour or two before I felt the effects of carrying a piece of unknown history on my finger. 
            Whereas I never would have used the word “precious” to describe the piece of jewelry, I do recall becoming rather fond of how it looked on my right hand.  Something inside of me began to rumble, and here is where my confession enters into the forum.  In plain words, I wanted to keep the ring.
            “You know, Diane,”  I started up as we paid our bill, “I wouldn’t mind having a ring like this.”
            She looked at me strangely, then peered at my hand.
            “Corinne,” she stated firmly, “y’all need to remember what Winnie said about Cuzco—you know, that quest for her son? “
            I nodded vaguely, and we stepped into the drizzling fog, which had dampened Cuzco.  Bending our heads while we maneuvered on the cobblestone street toward the hotel, Diana and I forgot about the ring until we spied a dark figure emerging from the silver mist, about 20 feet away.
            “Corina!  Corina!” shouted a low voice.   We immediately halted.
             “Who in God’s name is calling out my name!”  I hissed.  “This is really scary...Let’s get out of here!”
            But the man continued toward us, and uttered with urgency, ”It’s me, Rodrigo!  Mira, Corina, Miguel Ángel is over there!”    He pointed toward our right, where a man stood about twenty feet away, waiting in silent expectation.  The elusive wind had finally arrived.

First Encounter with Guajiro
            He stepped toward us into the dancing light of a swinging farol, and I gasped.  In my mind I had imagined some scruffy bohemian who wore ponchos and huaraches, but before me stood a Greek God:  light-skinned, high cheekbones, with glistening black curls framing his profoundly blue eyes, Miguel Ángel possessed the faun-like beauty of his sister, Reyna, whom I had met in Lima. And he wasn’t wearing a poncho, but a knee-length, dark wool coat, which made the mystery as compelling as an Alfred Hitchcock movie.  Caught up in our nocturnal liaison, I raised my arm with my right hand facing his eyes, and dramatically asked, “Do you remember this, Miguel Ángel?”
            He stopped suddenly, and with a catch in my heart, I realized he was about to turn and leave.  Then he saw the ring on my finger. 
            “Your mother sent it with me from Lima.  My name’s Corinne, and this is Diane.  Can we talk in the café over there?”

Lost Hope
            Miguel Ángel listened politely as I explained the purpose of my visit.  What surprised me most about his reaction was a pronounced disinterest in talking about his family. He simply wanted to take the ring and leave. He didn’t even glance at the letter his mother sent.
            “I can’t believe that he didn’t give me a message for his mother,” I complained to Diane once we got settled back into our quarters at the hotel.  “What’s with this guy?”
            “Maybe he’s depressed.  Or maybe he needs time to think things through,” she suggested.
            I considered Diane’s comment for a few seconds, and concluded, “Yes, but he doesn’t even know where to find us!  He never asked where we were staying!”
             My concern did not prove to be the least bit problematic.  For the next five days we ran into Miguel Ángel everywhere we went.  If I decided I needed a cappuccino pick-up, I would walk into a café and there he’d be sitting, reading a newspaper.  Sometimes all we did was turn the corner and we’d see Miguel Ángel walking toward us from the other direction.  Soon he began to be friendlier, saying a few things other than the standard “Buenos dias” or “Que tal”.  With each succeeding encounter, Miguel Ángel lowered his defensive stance, until one afternoon he took us to an artesania store which a friend of his owned.  At first I was happy because he appeared so anxious to show us the store.  When I realized he was trying to get a commission from his friend for a sale, I felt differently.  After all, I was a friend of the family.  His scheming left me feeling as if he were taking advantage of me.  But then, I had yet to glimpse the true nature of Miguel Ángel.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Cuzco, City of the Andes

Cuzco, City of the Incas
            When you first fly into Cuzco, the red rooftops of the low houses engage you in visual delight.  The semi-round tiles are a dusky red, and form cock-eyed patterns.  Arriving by plane to Cuzco, with the mist still gently hanging in the gray morning sky, is like landing into a fairytale city.
            After living in Quito, which is 9,000 feet high, I thought my body had adjusted to high altitudes.  However, one can easily forget the magnitude of the Andes Mountains.  In some mining towns in Peru, the workers’ blood actually turns blue, because of the dazzling height of the Andes.  During my year in Quito, my period stopped coming for months at a time.  Now, after landing in Cuzco, I had another shock.  The altitude was at least 11,000 feet, and the effect was staggering.  After Diane and I located a hotel, the proprietor insisted that we partake of some special tea in the small restaurant next door. 
            “It is made from the cocoa leaves, but don’t be concerned about it being like a drug.  The Incas have used this tea for centuries, to help them adjust to such extreme heights.”
            Feeling quite light-headed, we took his suggestion seriously. Afterward we returned to our rooms to unpack and rest.  By then Diane had heard all about my quest to find Winnie’s son in Cuzco.
            “I just can’t believe this story.  Ya’ll are like some messenger out of a detective novel.”  Diane was from Mississippi, and her southern accent drawled attractively.  “When do we go to that hotel where Winnie thought her son might be staying?”
             I was lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling.  The last two days had been intense, and I just wanted to think things through a bit.  Diane was sweet but younger and more energetic than me.  “I say let’s rest some, then eat.  After that I’ll be ready to look for Miguel Angel.”  And then I quickly fell asleep.

Cuzco or Cusco?
            Cuzco is as captivating as the travel books claim.  Once the ancient capital of the Incas, the city retains several Incan structures, built with irregular blocks of stones that fit so tightly together one is urged to trace the thin lines where they conjoin.  Earthquakes are frequent in the Andes, and when they occur in Cuzco, it is a known fact that the buildings which still possess Inca walls miraculously stand firm while the more modern structures collapse.  Upon his discovery of the marvelous city, Francisco Pizarro is known to have written to the king about how remarkable Cusco’s architecture was.  Today more than 300,000 people live in the city, which is now officially spelled Cusco, not Cuzco—though both are commonly used.
            What was most remarkable to me about the city, however, was the food.  Back in Quito the basic cuisine consisted of either ceviche or huge plates of rice with bits of meat and vegetables tossed in.  Here in Cuzco the Europeans had left their mark, with meatier dishes and bakeries that sold scrumptious tarts, croissants, and pies topped with tasty whipped cream.  Diane and I happily dined at a corner restaurant after our afternoon snooze, and then decided to look up the elusive Miguel Angel.
            The first place we checked was the hotel address that Winnie had given to me, which was near the centro.  The attendant at the desk stared at us for a short moment, repeating Miguel Angel’s name, until suddenly his eyes lit up.
            “Ahora entiendo.  Miguel Angel es Guajiro!  Este chavo no ha estado aquí desde hace meses.  Si quieren ustedes encontrar Guajiro, pues, deben irse al zocalo.  A lo mejor esta alli, tocando su churango.”  The man began to chortle bizarrely.           
            “What did he say?” asked Diane, who didn’t understand much Spanish.
            “Well, he said that Miguel Angel hadn’t been here for months, and that he goes by this Quechua name, Guajiro, which means the wind.”  I began to giggle myself, reflecting on how we were trying to catch the wind in Cuzco.  “And then he told us to go the zocalo, because that is where Miguel hangs out, playing his churango.”
            “What’s a churango?”
            “It’s a small stringed instrument, like a tenor guitar, only the back is an armadillo shell.”
            “Yes, really.  Let’s go, Diane.  Maybe we can catch the wind playing a concert in the zocalo.”

The Mystery Begins
            I had no idea what Miguel Ángel looked like, and there wasn’t anyone playing music in the zocalo that afternoon.
            “Let’s go to the pena Winnie was telling you about.  You know, the one with the strange name,” suggested Diane.
            “Good idea.  Let’s see, it was called the Kamikaze.  Who would have thought in the middle of the Andes there’d be a bar with a Japanese name for World War II suicide pilots!”
            “No kidding!”
            After inquiring about the Kamikaze’s location, we found ourselves climbing the steps of a building that looked like it should have been standing in the middle of the jungle. The bar appeared to be made from bamboo sticks, and sat on five-foot stilts.  By the time we climbed two sets of stairs and got inside, I was already tired.  Towards the back of a large room, some musicians were setting the stage with their instruments. 
            “Hey, maybe that’s him!”  I exclaimed, pointing at one of the men with long, wavy hair. “Con permiso, pero quisiera saber si usted conoce a un músico quien se llama Miguel Ángel, de Lima.  Su madre le mando una carta.”  I held up the envelope to show the young man Winnie’s letter with the ring inside.
            Buenas tardes,” began the young man, reminding me of how I’d forgotten my manners.
            Buenas tardes,” I returned, a bit chagrined.  Bueno..yo
            The man quickly switched to English and extended his hand.  “My name is Rodrigo.  Nice to meet you.  Sure, I know Miguel Angel.  He’s not here at the moment, but I believe if you come later, like around 11 tonight, you may find him.  Sometimes he plays during intermissions.”
            “My name’s Corina, and this is Diana.  Thanks so much, Rodrigo.  Does he play every night?”
            “Well, I am not sure about that.  But come!  My band is called El Tribu.”
            We agreed to come the next day, and thanked Rodrigo, shaking his hand once more.
            “Well, at least we know he’s still in Cuzco,” commented Diane.  “and it seems he’s graduated.  Instead of the zocalo, he’s playing in a bar!   Hey, changing the subject, that Rodrigo seemed like he was pretty interested in you, Corina.”
            I had noticed the same thing.  Though Rodrigo was quite attractive and notably polite, I had no intention of starting a romance in Cuzco.  Diane and I walked out into the cool, Andean dusk just as the stars snuck out, dressed in crystal splendor.  Inhaling the crisp, mountain air infused with smoky smells of distant fires, I thought of Winnie and her urgent words.  Though the Andean night reached out with seductive arms, only one thing was clear.  I had to find Miguel Angel. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

More of the Silver Ring in Peru

It Begins in Miraflores, a Colonia of Lima
            I flew into Lima during the evening, which was tricky as there was an
11 p.m. curfew due to the tense political situation.  Fortunately, my flight arrived before 9 p.m.   After I reached the bed and breakfast, Winnie’s husband had to return to the airport to pick up another couple whose flight arrived around 10 p.m.  As Winnie and I became somewhat acquainted over a cup of tea, I noticed her fidgeting while she continually glanced at her watch.
“What’s wrong, Winnie?” I inquired.
            “My husband should have been here by now.  I’m concerned that the flight may have been late and he may not be able to make it home before the 11 o’clock curfew.”
            “What happens if he doesn’t?”
            “The military police can shoot him,” she answered in a flat tone of voice.  “And the others, too,” she added.  Rising from her chair abruptly, she grabbed a large piece of white cloth on a table near the door.
“Where are you going, Winnie?” I asked in an alarmed voice.  It appeared that she was headed toward her car.
“I am going to wave this white cloth out my car window and try to intercept my husband and our guests.  If the military police see the white flag, they hopefully won’t shoot.”
“Oh, my,” I replied quietly, not knowing quite what to say.  “Well, good luck.  I hope that it works.”

          Winnie’s plan to rescue her husband and the new guests did work, though the intensity of that evening left everyone involved exhausted.  If I had imagined a peaceful vacation away from the turmoil of Colegio Americano politics, my first evening in Lima eliminated any such ideas.   Then again, who wants peacefulness when Mystery is patiently awaiting the arrival of your young heart?

The Prodigal Son
            After staying only one night, I became acquainted with Winnie’s unique family, particularly her children.  Reyna was a flight attendant for Aero-Peru, and she happened to be at the house for a few days between international flights.  Tall, fair-skinned, with dazzling curls framing her high-cheekbones, Reyna was a classic beauty who obviously favored the English side of the family.  One of Winnie’s sons, Eduardo, dropped by vicariously to chat with the family.  He owned a natural foods restaurant with his wife, Maria.  Francisco, another of her sons, was away studying at a university in Argentina.  However, it was Winnie’s eldest child, Miguel Angel, who most fascinated me.  Although he wasn’t in Lima, the manner in which family conversations hovered furtively around his supposed disappearance was notable.
            “He left his wife and children in Lima about a year ago,” Winnie informed me as we sipped our Earl Grey tea.  “Before that, he left a woman and child in Spain.”  She paused a moment, and looked out the window behind me.  “He told us he was going to Cuzco, but I haven’t heard from him for almost a year.  The last we knew he was playing in a musical group at a local pena.  Do you know what a pena is, Corina?”
            “I’ve been to a few of them in Ecuador.  They play folk instruments and start rather late at night, don’t they?  Sometimes there’s poetry, but I’ve only heard the music.  Is Miguel Angel a good musician?”
            “He’s maravilloso!  Mi hijo is so talented, but Corina, I have a favor to ask of you.”
            Then she handed me a thin, white envelope, and told me a very strange tale.
The History of the Silver Ring
            I have always thought that my two weeks in Cuzco was like a Gothic tale gone Latino, with me playing a reluctant Catherine to Miguel Angel’s turbulent
Heathcliff.  As I stood there, Winnie proceeded with her story about an antique silver band that was sealed inside the envelope.  Apparently Miguel Angel had first purchased the ring at a flea market in Cuzco as a gift for his novia.  According to Winnie, the ring had some special attraction, apart from the mysterious figures carved all around the band.   In fact, when Miguel Angel began to wear the ring, having long forgotten about the novia, one day she simply took it from him.
            “¿Por que me llevaste el anillo?” he asked her, a little indignantly.
            Porque me gusta,” she answered with a coaxing smile.   And from that point on, the silver ring stayed on Winnie’s slim, white index finger. 
            That is until her other son decided to study at a Trappist monastery in Argentina.
            “This was truly a strange experience for me,” Winnie continued.  “I had always wanted one of my sons to become a priest, and was so proud of Francisco.”  Her face was beaming as she described how her son came to study in Argentina.  “So, when Francisco got ready to leave, I asked him what he would like as a present.   And he said that he wanted the ring.  This puzzled me, as I never considered my son to be very materialistic.  However, I went to my bedroom and returned with the ruby ring, which is a family heirloom.  Francisco looked at the ring and laughed.  ‘No, Mami, not the ruby,”  he said.    ‘I want that ring!’   And then he pointed to the silver ring on my finger.”  Winnie’s face became dreamy, as she drifted into some private place within.  “I just don’t understand it.  Miguel Angel asked his brother to give him back that ring for years, and he always refused..  Now, all of a sudden, Francisco has sent it to me, to be returned to his brother.  And I don’t even know where he is!”  She snapped back into the present, and grabbed my hands.    I don’t know why, but this ring is important, Corinne.  I put it in this envelope, sealed, but should it come open, you must please promise to put the ring on your own finger. And bring it back if you don’t find my son. But I pray that you do because I am worried sick!” 
            I stood there, looking at Winnie’s beautiful face—she had dark brown hair, with a reddish tint, and clear skin lightly sprinkled with freckles.  But it was her eyes that held my attention.  Winne’s preoccupation for her son was emanating straight from her heart into those lovely, sapphire eyes, pleading with me to take on this serious mission.  In that moment, the Mystery, which had been waiting patiently since the moment I stepped foot in Lima, won me over:  my path was set.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Winnie and the Silver Ring: Peru 1986

Dear Friends and Readers:  The saga of Ecuador returns, but only to take me into the Mystery of Peru.  If you wish to comment on the journey, please do so!

         In 1985, I left Ecuador right before Christmas.  In an unexpected turn of events, I’d accepted an offer to teach sixth grade at the Quito Colegio Americano two days before my departure.  Before that I’d spend four months touring and exploring Ecuador, often staying with Peace Corps workers in remote sites.  At one point I almost went into the depths of the Amazon jungle in search of the Canelos Quichua ceramic makers.  However, due to a meeting with the president of the local Indian organization, I changed my mind.  A previous commitment to return to Iowa and finish my graduate studies hung suspended like a forgotten pair of shoes, dangling by its strings on a hook in the back of a closet.  Instead, very shortly I would return to Quito to begin my new duties at the American school.
            I often wonder what my life would have been like had I spent more time asking why the previous teacher had left her position so abruptly, breaking a two-year teaching contract. The woman had snuck out of the country like a thief in the night, booking a midnight passage to the States.  At the airport gate she encountered furious Colegio Americano officials who attempted to physically prevent her from getting on the flight. This tidbit of information would later prove to be rather significant, as a flock of teachers followed in her footsteps, conniving to leave a country and a job, both which had proven to be overwhelmingly challenging.
            My own situation began with a bang—literally, for there was a military takeover of the airport, which put the country at a standstill.  At the time I was holed up in the Santa Clara, a boarding house pension, while trying to find an apartment.
             Five days of being in a state of emergency was frightening as well as surreal.  It seemed as if the entire country had gone into a lockdown--- the grocery stores were stripped of canned goods and water, leaving long, lonely stretches of empty shelves.  If you went outside, you felt as if you were taking your life into your own hands, what with early curfews and military personnel on every street corner, not to mention the army tanks.  Teachers from the school gathered in each other’s apartments, hovering together on couches and at tables, in an unconscious effort to find comfort through physical proximity.  We were like golden butterflies caught in a dark net, our adventuresome souls trapped in foreign confusion and fear.  During those five days I felt constant fear, for my passport was in the extranjeria, the government visa office.  How could I ever leave the country without my passport?  Compounding this concern, the lieutenant colonel that led the coupe captured and laid claim to the Quito airport.  In true Ecuadorian style, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Vargas was finally discovered below an airport cosmetic counter, huddling among the perfumes.  Undoubtedly, no rebel had ever smelled so sweet.

The Truth About Ecuador
             My reluctance to embrace Ecuadorian culture may well have commenced with their coffee. No delicious café con leche here.  Instead, a miniature glass pitcher filled with esencia de café was placed on the table. You would then be served either a hot cup of water into which you poured the rather tasteless black liquid, making a languid drink that failed to stir the senses.  Like the Ecuadorian coffee, I found many aspects of living in the country difficult to swallow.  Apart from the political instability, I always seemed to be sick, as were many of the teachers working at the Colegio Americano.  Shortly after arriving I developed a cold, which threatened to turn into bronchitis.  Consequently, all my extraneous activity, which included 45-minute bus rides to and from the school, as well as searching for an apartment for almost two months, were accompanied by wheezing and fists of Kleenex.  Perhaps the weakness of that coffee had been transferred into my body.  The challenges mounted daily, including the difficulty of trying to become part of the close-knit group of teachers. 
            I don’t remember all their names, but I do recall that they acted like a membership-only country club, and that Margot was the centerpiece.  She and her boyfriend, Ernest, had signed up for two years, and were considerably vocal about issues that were brewing at the school.  Indeed, as the months passed by, even more teachers snuck out of the country, which made teaching at the colegio seem more and more like a prison sentence.  While walking the streets of Quito, an intense desire to be somewhere else would unexpectedly arise, like a swift yank in the solar plexus, and I would vehemently wish I weren’t teaching.  Curiously, I’d often envision myself dancing, for the yearning at the pinnacle of my soul cried out for creative expression.  During the day, as I struggled to get control of unruly Ecuadorian children, my shoulders became increasingly slumped, manifesting internal feelings of defeat.  What was I doing here?  It seemed utterly senseless.  Even when I eventually got an apartment in what I thought was the lovely valley of Guapalo, my life continued to be problematic. 
            Guapalo Valley, located at the bottom of a long, winding road, was oddly peppered with Eucalyptus trees imported from New Zealand. Quaintly furnished by a British teacher on leave for six months, the apartment had a fantastic view but was so isolated that no one came to visit.  In fact, only one teacher made the attempt, arriving unexpectedly on a late day hike.  The older married man wanted to determine just how secluded I was, distinctly giving me the impression that he might return again if I was up to sexual intrigues.  What seemed truly intriguing, however, was the fact that even the taxi drivers were reluctant to go down into the valley of Guapalo.  Unbeknownst to me, Guapalo held high fame as a sleazy, red-light district. 
            As I the days unraveled, I became more and more depressed.  The school politics, the children who saw teachers not unlike their servants who brought them cookies and milk at the end of the day, and feeling like an outsider, all contributed to my heart’s dismay at having returned to Ecuador.  Living in the charming but far-way apartment, and the drudgery of getting up at the crack of dawn to catch a bus two hours before classes began, were gnawing reminders of my premonition that returning to work in Ecuador would not be an easy task. Yet, who could guess that the grueling lifestyle I had chosen would lead me into the magical, ancient kingdom of Cuzco, Peru?  The gift of teaching in Ecuador was having two weeks paid vacation during Semana Santa, or Holy Week.  As luck would have it, an American student teacher, Diane, was also interested in visiting Cuzco and the compelling, mystical ruins of Machu pichu. 

Winnie and the Silver Ring
Everyone I know who has visited Machu pichu has related to me some type of mystical revelation that occurred during a visit to the famous Inca ruins.  Set high above Cuzco, itself a former Inca capital, the ruins jut upward in majestic splendor, hovering among the sparse clouds.  Many people walk the Inca Trail in order to more authentically approach the lost city of the Incas.  However, most prefer to come by train or bus, arriving in eager anticipation with cameras clutched in their hands and broad-rimmed hats perched on their heads.  Many arrive at daybreak, just as the sun is spreading an uncanny light upon the chiseled stones that to this day manifest the superb engineering abilities of the Inca people.  But all arrive with one thing in their hearts—the hope of entering into Mystery, that tantalizing feeling which modernity too often obscures.  Mystery is at the core of Machu pichu and reigns over the ruins like a clever queen.  She draws into her kingdom all who long to create a velvet entryway into the soul. 
At least, that is how I felt when I left Quito alone, a few days before my fellow traveler, Diane, was to meet me at Winnie’s Bed and Breakfast in Lima, Peru.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ecuador and Peru: 1985

I wrote the beginning of a second book, even though I am still attempting to publish my first:  Daughter of Corn:  Coming of Age in the Americas.  The event of las lluvias was so conducive to the solitary act of writing, and the advantage of having a gas fireplace close to my nose spurred me into a creative frenzy.  In the fall of 1985 I wandered throughout Ecuador, staying with Peace Corps workers and searching for a way to visit the Canelos Quichua tribe in the Amazon jungle.  I ended up returning in December to finalize a visa to teach at the Colegio Americano in Quito.  The real story, however, began at Easter when I flew to Peru to visit the infamous Inca Ruins outside of Cuzco. And it wasn't just a story, it was a gothic tale, sunk into the mists of an ancient city poised at over 9000 feet.  This is just the beginning of:


The Alchemy of a Creative Woman

Corinne J. Stanley

I was sitting in the Dolce Vita, a tiny Italian Café with two rows of round metal tables set under a glassed-in room. The long, drooping bougainvillea burst into a fuchsia sonata just outside my window, and the midday sun sent glances of light upon the coppery tables. I am back to paradise, I thought.  Back to the cobblestone streets of San Miguel, far from the rattlings of Ecuador and the puzzlement of Iowa.  Still on a search.  And this time, I thought, I have just got to get it right.  This time, those lessons from Ecuador are going to sink in.   I looked down into my café con leche, foamy milk swirling at the top of the golden brown liquid, and then added a small spoonful of light-brown, unprocessed sugar. The steaming coffee became transformed into a new brew, one that tasted nutty and sweet,
Transformed.  That’s what I yearned for.  To be made into something new, to unleash the creative part of my soul, with full force.  But that’s what Ecuador was supposed to be about, I recalled pensively.
My friend, Meche, had just entered the café, with her cousin Yolanda.  Their smiling faces drew me away from my writing, and I looked at them with pleasant surprise.
“¡Qué milagro!”  I called out, gesturing toward two empty chairs tucked under my table. 
“¿Qué pasó, Corina? “ asked Meche.           
Still ensconced in my previous thoughts, I realized how much I wanted to talk about Ecuador, and what had happened during that tumultuous year.
“Oyen—no se si les he platicado sobre mis experiencias en Quito. ¿Quieren que les cuente mis historias?”  I asked.  They nodded their heads with interest, and so I began to tell them what had happened when I returned to Quito two years ago on a cold January day in 1986, straight into a military coup de etat.