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!

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.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Las lluvias que no deben ser/The Rains that Shouldn't Be

There is a giving in and there is a giving up.  A giving over and a giving into.  When I went to San Miguel last November I was both giving up and giving into...the desire to have space and time to write, to be able to redefine my destiny even with so much unknown lurking in the future.  To seek those incandescent experiences that are fleeting yet tender.  For me it was important to create several stories--the story of my life as a writer, the story of my ideals being manifested once more in a cross-cultural landscape such as San Miguel.  I wanted to re-enter a world in which living was meaningful and required some effort--the boiling of water to drink, the purification of vegetables, the ordering of gas for the stove and hot water boiler.  I wanted to turn the corner to find the cramped tienda where I could buy my leche and pan dulce, then later go sit in the sun at the patio of Bellas Artes.

Most of all, I desired to find that special cafe where I could sip my cafe con leche and write for hours, losing myself in the inspired flow of words.

My yearning was as simple as the opportunity to once more take in the San Miguel jardin:  couples and families strolling arm in arm, the abuelita selling her dulces and sodas in front of the parroquia, children running in circles with their furry toy monkeys on wheels trailing behind them.
And the markets... to enter the cool, damp world of chopping knives, the bartering of fruits and vegetables, and to emerge into the welcoming sun, laden with fresh food, a bouquet of yellow and pink roses in my visit the Christmas market at San Juan de Dios and return with miniature ceramic nacimientos, the renegade hermit and his cave tucked next to the figures of Mary and Joseph.

And I did.  I did all of these things until the rains came.  The ceaseless, potent rains, an unexpected deluge that arrived fiercely in late December and stayed throughout January. Las lluvias which should have arrived in July but pounced upon the city in the cool winter months, flooding the villages around the presa and holding stunned northerners hostage in cold hotels.  These incessant rains altered our expectations and feelings about San Miguel, which was now transformed into a veritable Macondo that rattled our sun-deprived souls.

 I sat, thinking I had never left the Midwest summer of the flood, trapped on my third floor Departamento Rojo, but fortunately with a gas fireplace that offered warmth and some escape from the dampness.  And rising in the early morning to the pounding rhythm of rain on the flat rooftop, and telling myself, "Neruda did this, only he had a mongoose and a friend back in Argentina to urge him on"  I wrote...but really, truly, I was not Neruda, but still, yes, I was a residente en la tierra... writing.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

More on Purple Corn....

When I first lived in San Miguel, I taught at the bilingual school, Jose Vasconcelos.  Most people today don't realize that the American school was originally located in el Centro on Juarez Street .  Vasconcelos was so small that I taught third and fourth grades in the morning, and fifth and sixth grades in the afternoon.  It was 1981, I was 28 years old, and absolutely delighted to be living in San Miguel.  My apartment was a block away, situated on the roof of the San Sebastian Hotel.  My floors were tiled aqua blue and I had a bath tub, as well as a pecan tree waving at my kitchen window.  When school ended at three o'clock, I trotted home, fixed my comida and walked three blocks to the Bellas Artes to continue my studies in ceramics with Blanca Garcia.    This was the year of purple corn, for I met the King of Sweden at the Bellas Artes one afternoon (and appeared on TV), sold all my ceramic pieces in a group show at the Bellas Artes, and fell in and out of love with Jose Luis.  Toward the end of the school year I traveled to the exotic pueblo of Xichu with Blanca and rode twelve hours on a mule to Ojo de Agua, a virginal hot springs secluded in the recesses of Guanajuato.  I returned to the village of Xichu with Wally, and we camped near tall boulders in the charmed hills, unable to return to the hot springs because of the rains.

Twice I week I walked the half-block to the market and returned laden with fruits, flowers, and vegetables. The butcher chopped my meat into thin slices and hammered it down with a metal mallet. He sliced my smoked bacon into thick, delicious slabs, and I bought my milk off the streets when the burrows came into town with large tin cans roped to their skinny backs.  Sometimes when I returned to my rooftop haven I would find a note pinned to the wooden door.

There were very few cars in San Miguel during the Eighties and hardly a residential phone to be found.  The jardin or plaza was a cordial nest for gossip and paseos on Sunday evenings, when the muchachos from the ranchos spruced up in clean jeans and plaid shirts and strutted around the jardin in search of a novia.  If you sat on one of the metal benches, you were fair game for an  impromptu language class, or an invitation to dance at Mama Mia's.  In the wee hours of the morning, nortena bands and hamburger stands peppered the plaza's streets, and no one was afraid of being attacked or robbed.  You could walk home at 4 a.m., look up into the glittering sky, and inhale the magic of the yet-to-be discovered paradise of San Miguel de Allende.

Is it any wonder that the return journey paled in comparison?  Can gated communities and fancy restaurants compete with such memories?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Second Journey: The Streets of San Miguel

Are you aware that there is a hybrid of purple corn, and that it is known as the Hawaiian variety? From the stalks to the leaves to the kernels, all is a deep and rich mauve.  When I worked for Northrup King Seed Company as a youth, I was in charge of a small plot of purple corn and it never ceased to amaze me when I came upon its glory.  One gets so used to seeing corn as a green plant with yellow and white kernels.

When I returned to San Miguel on the second journey, I expected my experience to be unique but familiar. I wanted my" green corn" to be part of the landscape.  However, San Miguel had undergone a great transformation since my bohemian days.  For one thing, there were the cars.  Cobblestone streets were built for carts and horses, not large SUV's.  As I edged my way down the Salida a Queretaro in my little Focus, I mostly held my breath and kept my foot firmly planted on the brakes.  When I eventually returned to the States, it was as if I carried battle wounds on my vehicle--dents and multi-colored scrapes, as well as little plastic tabs on my hubcaps to secure them from being stolen a second time.  I could survive the scrapes and loss of side-view mirrors.  However, the pollution of a constant flow of uncontrolled auto exhaust in el Centro was another matter.  And why was I driving so much?  Hadn't I imagined my return to be one of walking the streets of San Miguel, working my leg muscles into a firm transformation?  Living in the Valle de Maiz, and needing to get to the Colonia de Guadalupe by 8 a.m. to teach was not without some complications. What I hadn't realized in my time away from paradise was that San Miguel was now a city with five thousand or more foreigners and ten thousand or more cars.   Modernity had arrived, and though there still was the occasional desfile of burros curving their way down Barranca Street, laden with freshly cut wood, the main streets were held captive by too many cars and too little parking spaces.  If this was purple corn, where then was its glory?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

There Is a Space, a Metaphysical Place Inside of Me

Reflecting upon this journey and all the journeys I have taken--Mexico, Ecuador, Peru---what comes to mind is Cesar Vallejo and his poem, Espergesia.  For what is it that pulls us out of the routine life, that modicum of secure dreams, and into the world of not-knowing?  Sometimes we are pushed by fate, and forced to fly into territories we may never have dared to venture into otherwise.  Cesar Vallejo was a Peruvian genius, a poet born and raised in the stark Andes who ended up in Paris during the early 1900's.  He startled the literary world with his universal poetry, and continues to be translated to this day.  "Hay un vacio/ en mi aire metafisico/ que nadie hay de palpar"  --"There is an emptiness/ in my metaphysical air /that no one dares to touch".  The American poet James Wright takes this image further in a similar poem, but his bones turn "to dark emeralds" in the end.

But this space, this metaphysical place within us, does it not contain those often unidentifiable yearnings?  The desire to leave our home and make new of something that has grown stagnant, aloof, without purpose?

In a culture where consumerism clutches our very being, Mexico appeals to the heart and soul of many.  When I told people I was returning to Mexico, it seemed as if I became their dream.  I was the hidden desire made manifest, and I was carried forward not just by my resolution to redefine myself as a writer, but by the torch of their longing. Within the journey was a momentum and a force that seemed apart from my purposeful planning.  Twice I felt a pull within my solar plexus during my stay in Mexico;  once while listening to a Mayan descendant speak about his ancestors' visions for the future, and another time standing on a ceremonial site outside of San Miguel, as the spring solstice arrived.  Was it my "metaphysical air" that was being yanked?  Why had I really come to San Miguel?

Friday, October 1, 2010

San Miguel 2009--Los Cambios

(Photo by Barbara Ann Weber, --Thanks again!)

I had such delight writing about San Miguel de Allende in the Eighties, but describing my 2009 return to the city "me costo" as they say in espanol.  My journey was not one of the old Laredo trains of days long past, nor was it a quick flight into Leon, Guanajuato.  I drove alone from Iowa to San Miguel on long desolate stretches of super-highway toll roads, well worth the extra pesos but uncannily vacant. The poverty was notable, as well as the search for gasolineras.  As I came close to el Bajio, the name for the rich valley surrounding San Miguel, the sparseness relented its firm grip upon the landscape, and my hope for a redefining journey surged.  After a few days of rest in my friend Meche's casita, I came upon the Departamento Rojo in el Valle del Maiz.  Fortune was smiling brightly---until the rains came plunging upon the picturesque city.

It was strange to be in San Miguel during a very rainy Christmas, for the normal time of las lluvias is late June and early July.  During my first two months back in San Miguel, it rained so much they had to evacuate the Colonia de Guadalupe.  One of my friend's roof dropped buckets of water upon her beloved and extensive library.  Someone in an outlying village was swept by the overflow of the presa and died.

Meanwhile I holed up in my rooftop haven, writing essays, sending out proposals to small presses and making collages for the feria at the Instituto Allende.  Sometimes I taught Spanish to tenants in the other two apartments, and I fervently sought full-time work.  After all, I had arrived with certificates signed by Secretaries  of the States of Iowa and Minnesota, officially stamped so that I could process working papers.

Apart from the unusual weather in San Miguel, I felt emboldened by my decision to redefine myself as a writer in the place where I published my first book of poetry.  The cobbled stones were still there, the swinging faroles and swaying bugambilias.  When the sun did emerge, a scintillating light splashed upon the colorful buildings and renovated street fountains sprouted streams of clear water. My spirit emerged, also, eager to plant a foundation for my Mexican future.  Although I kept the notion of a six-month plan in the back recesses of my mind, I was hopeful for the long-term opportunity I just knew was right around the narrow streetways leading into the Valle del Maiz. "San Miguel se da" stated my friend Ceci firmly.  But little did I know just what the magical city of my past was planning "to give."