THE TEXAS EAGLE

US trains Amtrak Texass Eagle

A 1990s map of Amtrak’s routes.

17 – 19 August 2003

St. Louis, Missouri – El Paso, Texas, by way of San Antonio

Texas Eagle / Sunset Limited

 

I spend this day simmering in nerves. Will I remember how to observe, explore, to write?

It has been so long since I last took a train. Let’s see if I can remember. Christmas 2000, it had to be. The Ann Rutledge between Jefferson City and Chicago. Almost three years now.

Tonight I’ll be hopping the Texas Eagle, from here to the Mexican border.

 

All morning I mull over Saint Louis maps. Which will be our route out of town? Will we follow those tracks through Carondolet Park, near Cristina’s house? But there is such a maze of rails southward. I give up.

I try to catnap. It’s another sultry summer day on these banks of the Mississippi. Heat advisories are posted again. I can’t sleep. I give up.

I pack. Try to rest. Give up.

We have a late lunch. Despite the beer, and rum-coffee liqueur- spiked ponche crema (or because of), I still can’t sleep. I awaken sweating. I give up. I shower, stow the gear into Rocinante (my knapsack) and tie her down. I try to read for a while. But I can’t … I give up.

And I worry. Can I remember how to ride, how to write?

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

Cristina, Germán and I arrive at the downtown Amtrak station. It is already crowded with people and baggage for the Texas Eagle, due in at 8:50 p.m. from Chicago. We greet a friend awaiting his brother on that train. The Eagle finally alights at 9:17. I check my watch with the lobby clock. I am three minutes fast.

Cristina, Germán and Dan marvel at this silver string of double-decker cars. Never before had they seen a Superliner, the long-distance trains. But I must find my place, and Dan has spotted his brother. Time only for hurried hellos, good-byes and hugs.

A man across the aisle helps me hoist Rocinante onto the overhead rack. I peer out the window. My friends are nearing their auto. Germán keeps looking over his shoulder to our gleaming Eagle. I wave furiously. They finally spot me. We say farewell one last time.

Indeed, this is the Texas Eagle. Here in Saint Louis, the last car will be taken off. Once we get to San Antonio, only this coach and one sleeper will hook up with the west-bound Sunset Limited on its way to California. And I’m on my way to El Paso.

We are in darkness for a while until the last car is detached. Union Pacific freighters clunk, rattle by on the next track.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

And so we slowly roll through the railyards, boxcars parked on sidings. The night streets are abandoned. Over there is Saint Louis University.

We glide through the blackened metropolis, swaying past Monsanto Center and warehouses. Crossing empty streets, red lights flashing. Lit truck yards. Long expanses of pitch, desolate city.

At last the rhythm of wheel upon rail quickens. A blast of train horn. Trees silhouette against a charcoal-grey sky.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

Down in the smoking car, a girl listens to her mother and two other women trade tales of men.

The loud boasts of teen-age boys fill one end of the snack bar. The attendant is taking stock of his wares. He slow-wipes the counter in rhythm to that sweet jazz playing.

And in the sightseer car, a twenty-something man talks on his cellular phone. A young woman wraps herself in a blanket. Other folk listen to music filtered through headphones. All settle to watch the Missouri countryside slide by.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

Now our Texas Eagle soars through the velvet night, carrying its passengers into the Dream World.

The mother in front of my row hushes her children. Jeremy, shhhh, people are sleeping. Jeremy turns the lights on and off. They flicker across these pages. His younger brother looks over the seat and waves at me. Mother returns to Harry Potter, a third son nestling against her.

The horn again blows as we pass through a nameless village, past the police station, past the tavern whose small windows are lit with neon beer signs.

And once more into indistinguishable night. The hollowness of a bridge. The sway over a rough stretch of tracks. Crossing-bar lights pulsate. A pick-up truck waits our passage.

More ebon-forested landscapes, scattered anonymous towns. The earth begins to mound. We are winging into the Ozarks. High above in the east, Mars shines red. Behind fleeting trees, I see the copper half-wane moon. Here in the near-midnight countryside, the sky is a rich deep blue.

More nameless … More hollow …

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

About 2:23 a.m.

I awaken, wondering where we are. Has Poplar Bluff come and gone? Nothing looks familiar. We are flying across a flat land. The now-white moon seems fuller. Endless civilization.

I struggle against sleep.

And awaken to our Eagle creeping. Another train zooms by. The almost-continual horn.

And suddenly again the vibration of our speed through my body. And the planed scape, stark moon, civilization. I hear the conductress go through and later, drifting towards the edge of wakefulness, I hear her seat a new passenger.

I rise and sink to consciousness. The land is flat, flat. I search the nameless towns this train stalks for some clue.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

About 4:56 a.m.

We hover through these Little Rock railyards. Freighters pass us at a quicker clip. Their engines hum. Their cars clatter. In the distance, neon-outlined buildings shine through the fog. Over a river, a long hollow rattle, boards creak. The capitol. And a momentary rest for more passengers.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

About 5:45 a.m.

Still it is so dark outside. Soon we will stop at Malvern, near Hot Springs. Perhaps by then dawn will paint the oriental heaven.

I think I shall fall back into the rhythm of this Eagle – allow it to lull me, to let me swoop on its wings into the Dream World once more.

The sky is faintly lightening.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

And when I next awaken, it is pale blue. We dart straight through skimmed-green swamps. Through small towns without stopping. Hope, Arkansas. Cows and egrets out in a pasture. Rocking and rolling. Occasionally the click of rails can be heard. Osage orange trees hang heavy with fruit.

            The snack bar is now open for breakfast.

                        Coffee .. sausage and egg sandwich

            Or perhaps a bowl of cereal. 

And down there, the attendant serves his coffee. Dinah Washington sings soft.

            The dining car is now open

            for your dining pleasure.

Up in the sightseer car, Robert the Porter spins tales of his many years of service. The best ride? For scenery, the Empire Builder. Ah, also the California Zephyr. It goes through high desert, low desert, plains, mountains and canyons – views you can get only on a train. The craziest thing that’s ever happened? The twelve kids that wrea-eaa-eaked havoc all the way from Dallas to Chicago.

(Suddenly this reminds me of My Nightmare Train, on which the kids wrea-eaa-eaked havoc all the way from Viedma to Bariloche in Argentina’s northern Patagonia. Gee, kids aren’t so different 9,000 kilometers apart.)

            Amtrak’s next scheduled stop is

                        Texarkana

            Last stop in Arkansas

The self-same landscape into Texas. That young boy in front of me looks over his seat and greets me.

                        Amtrak apologizes for the delay.

            We’ve got a bit of freight traffic

                        coming our way.

We sit surrounded by woods. Twin locomotives and containers on flatbeds, sometimes double-stacked, rumble by. Worn-white, orange, blue flash past our windows. The air conditioning within here blows soft. Soon enough that other train passes.

And we skim the red soil of Texas. Over rivers. A lake with drowned trees shimmers beyond the forest. Past swamps, an egret flying above.

The mother and her three sons gather their belongings. Shifting his small pack upon his back, the youngest turns and gives me a quick smile, a quick wave. The vestibule door closes behind them.

Through Atlanta slowly, past its prim brick station, not stopping.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

Marshall, Texas

Our Eagle alights in front of a brick station with pristine white trim and wrap-around porch. We await our new conductor and engineer to arrive. I scan the Union Pacific freight train passing with multitudes of boxcars and tankers and hoppers.

Robert says it’s already getting hot out there. The early-morning sun sparkles on his smile. “And when we get to Dallas, it’s going to be 5,000 degrees. And El Paso, whew,” he wipes his molasses-colored brow, “7,000 degrees!”

                        We are running ahead of schedule.

            Most likely we will now be arriving

                        to all our stops early.

On time we take flight, cutting through mid-morning forests of willows, oaks and sumacs, past refineries, through woods of mimosa, horseweed and locust. The earth is drying. The many swamps and rivers of before have disappeared. Now and again dirt roads raise their dust. Past acres of rolled-up bales of hay. Sometimes a farm pond. Clapboard houses shrivel.

A young boy across the aisle listens to his CD. The music leaks from the headphones and flows on this air-conditioned wind. He dances in his seat, air-scratching the records. His ma hopelessly tries to still him. She turns to her window to gaze upon the countryside beneath this gliding Eagle.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

Longview, Texas

Passengers go, passengers come. Below on the sidewalk, some child has drawn a yellow-chalk figure. Four generations of African-Americans with mounds of luggage on carts board the train. A young Texan stumbles with her red duffel bag.

As we leave, lunch is called in the dining car. Service must be finished by Dallas. I share a table with Renee of mid-sized town, Oregon. She’s been visiting family in Arkansas. Sandra serves us our meals. (On this side, Cornish hen, mashed potatoes and green beans, with a glass of Merlot.) Renee is a third-grade teacher. Sixty percent of her students are Hispanic. She tells me of their difficulties immigrating, of their poverty-filled Christmases. Over cheesecake and coffee, we talk about how our rôles as women have changed and the constrictions we still face.

It is now just before one. We are the only two diners still left. The workers are clearing other tables, folding the cloths. Renee asks Sandra where we are entering. Dallas. In the distance its high skyline rasps the faded-denim heavens.

Sunlight sheens off hot chrome handrails, off the metal horse wings and hooves of a mural. On the other side of the platform, a Trinity Railway Express commuter departs for Fort Worth. The air is barren and still. The sun glints off the glass walls of the Hyatt.

And within here, the ages, the rainbow that is the United States. Whites, Latinos, African-Americans, Native Americans. Immigrants or mere travelers from Eritrea, India, China and Switzerland; from Mexico, Germany, Australia, Japan and Israel. We spend this time watching DVDs on computer or reading; talking on cell phones or sleeping. Some lean over seats, chatting with one another. Others play games. A few women knit.

Leaving Dallas, drifting by a caravan of open hoppers of shredded scrap metal, and boxcars. Empty lots, neighborhoods and then the railyard web, sandwiched between long lines of cargo trains. Under and over interstate highways, towards Fort Worth. Soil bone-dry, trees small-leafed. Shopping centers. Warehouses. Pawnshops and lounges and Baptist churches. Into and out of Arlington. Traffic stopped by red and white-striped bars, red flashing lights.

I doze. I hear an announcement in the hazes of dreams.

And awaken to a slight breeze cooling the blistering sun. We are in Fort Worth. A large Santa Fe sign on the roof of the station-cum-market. On the other side of our platform idles – and soon departs – our sister Eagle. Further beyond, two BNSF engines head a long string of hoppers heaped with coal.

We pull away. On the next track over, a Union Pacific freighter is stopping, blocking roads.

            The snack bar once more is open.

The line forms. The attendant repeats over and again, “No, ma’am, we’re out of that. That, too, sir. But we do have …” And that jazz, still that jazz.

Back into small town and rural Texas. A land of nopales, drying arroyos, of dust devils a-winding. Cumulus clouds build high into the bleached sky. A land of fragile, pale soil carpeted with wildflowers. A dead dog rots into the earth, its bones stark white. Fields of brittle corn. Mesquite. Mobile homes and decaying barns. Horses and burros, cattle graze among snowy egrets.

And miles upon miles of flat, unpopulated lands.

We arrive in MacGregor at almost 6:30 p.m., over a half-hour late. The conductor seats more passengers going beyond San Antonio.

And that young Texan who got on back in Longview? She’s raising a fuss about having to give up the seat next to her. At least she said it: She’s a spoiled l’il brat.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

Chasing the Sunset

I came to the sightseer car to watch the sun set. It has hidden behind a bank of grizzled cumulus shadowing the land. A solitary, thick ray shines towards earth.

Acres upon acres of sear maize, hayfields, and feral brush dusted with white flowers. The train horn blows. Yards full of scrap lumber and abandoned autos.

That beam widens. Faintly the heaven begins to color.

A tractor with a sunbonnet mows a field ere dusk settles. In the distance is the Temple, Texas water tower. Doves gather on electrical lines.

The clouds gather pale melon.

Folks in this car watch the movie. They ignore Temple, our horn blow.

To the east, lightning pulsates.

Street lamps light.

Sometimes to watch a sunset, one needs patience. It becomes a meditation.

The ray frays, becoming lemon yellow. That melon pools deeper. And above the nebulous star – pale rose.

Now it’s about seven-thirty. A small dog chases a pick-up truck across a field.

The sun sinks beneath the clouds. Its orb is visible, a bright yellow-orange. Out to the east it rains. The sky is now peach.

Through a town of old wild-west buildings. Through stubbled-corn acreage.

And that star emerges again. The heavens intensify – peach and orchid, a touch of magenta. Gradually this evening’s painting is emerging. The peach turns to orange, the magenta brightens. Distant oriental clouds reflect soft gold.

Shadows are forming as we enter Taylor. A large graveyard lies yonder. Between birthday greetings and community announcements, a bank sign flashes 8:03 p.m., 90º. These buildings block my view of the sunset.

And by the time we leave Taylor, that near star has completely departed. The sky is shading to indigo. The greenery darkens. Clouds cling to the thinning remnants of color.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

The conductor announces we are approaching Austin. Our Eagle wings down a highway median, surrounded by traffic. We pull in 26 minutes late. Higher downtown buildings are outlined in neon.

Then over Town Lake, heading south. These interior lights are dimmed. Some children are already tucked in and asleep. Twenty minutes behind schedule, we arrive in San Marcos. Those burnt rails are cooling with this new night. With a horn blow, the train slowly takes flight.

Robert stands at the front of our passenger car. “We should be getting into San Antonio about 11 p.m., or about a half-hour early. A barrier will be put up between this car and the ones in front. Those cars are going back to Chicago tomorrow.

“Now, you can get off this train and do what you all wish. But remember, this is your place.”

Just before 11, we hover past the Alamo. Ay, to have a tour at this hour, to meet the ghosts of Texan independence. We roll into the blackened old-city heart and roost at Sunset Station. And I fall asleep.

I awaken before midnight and wander the streets in this part of town. No stores, nothing is open. Some people found the Denny’s, but it is closed until two. I take a study of the huge black Southern Pacific steam locomotive and hopper on display. Engine Number 794 – 58,000 pounds light; 160,000 pounds loaded.

Suddenly our Eagle lifts off, switching tracks, changing the order of cars.

I enter the station. The woman behind the counter is speaking Spanish to a family of would-be travelers. I chat with her co-worker. He says the Sunset Limited is running about an hour late. (It’s due in at 2:28 a.m., according to the timetable.)

“The rest of the trip will be off about the same amount of time. Rail traffic is heavy out in west Texas at night.”

“Indeed,” I reply. “Lots coming up from Mexico.”

“Precisely.”

I reboard. That Texan who had gotten on in Longview is leaning over a seat, talking loud. A few older women nod their heads politely (and occasionally shake them). She’s going to pull a blanket out, she declares, and sleep in the aisle. (Poor thing, she can’t reckon having only one seat. She needs so much space. As ma across the aisle says, “If you want two seats, pay for them.”)

The young woman pushes her glasses up with a fat hand. Her Texas Roadhouse t-shirt shudders with a quick breath. Chomping her gum, she praises the air conditioning. The train crew is mean and selfish. They charge so much for food. They take a whole row of seats for themselves. They were out of margaritas when she went. (Is she old enough to drink?!) Therefore, the train is full of drunks. Only old people ride the train. And there are no kids. (Ahem – and how many are there presently in this car? At least six.) Well, I just heard her say she’s in ninth grade and has a pretty high reading level. She’s going to get a scholarship to study law at UCLA. She has always wanted to be a lawyer.

I continue writing in my journal and peering down to the station. I hear an announcement. I can’t understand it.

After El Paso, it’s going to be so boring, nothing but desert, nothing to see, she complains. She’s going back to California to live with her pa. She couldn’t cotton living with her ma and stepfather. Her mother’s shipping her back …

I am beginning to feel sleepy again. Perhaps I’ll nap for a while.

 

Shortly before four a.m., I awaken to the rising crescendo of an approaching locomotive, to its horn. We begin divorcing from the Texas Eagle, wedding to the Sunset Limited. I keep dozing off. By the time the ceremony is over, we are almost two hours late.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

About 6:39 a.m.

Eastward the sky begins to lighten, and for a while, holds a dusky rainbow. Shadows lift to reveal a fawn bounding through sage and mesquite. The returning sun is brilliant yellow, bathing the sky gold. A hawk skims the brush. The earth sculpts into buttes.

In the sightseer car I sit, meditating upon the desert below. A young woman plays guitar.

In some small town, way before Del Río, we stop for the passage of a Union Pacific train: 126 boxcars and tankers. We are now entering the region of these massive cargueros. There is no hope of making up lost time – all surety of losing more.

A zopilote soars above flatlands, above a mobile trailer parked back from the dirt road. A herd of pronghorn antelope wander through the desert.

A one-hundred-twenty-car Union Pacific rushes by. In the distance, north of Del Río, Laughlin Air Force Base shimmers like a mirage. Then Del Río itself, where we can step off and stretch our legs. “But you can’t go into town,” the loudspeaker warns. Too soon we receive the all-aboard and we begin journeying. Only to stop within a few feet to pick up a passenger who – yes – had gone into town.

We follow the Río Grande. A wild ram fades into the dull brush. We pass a dam to the south, its Lake Amistad bright blue. Sage, fruiting nopal and mesquite. Candelaria cactus, creosote. Rocky earth scattered with ranches. Yucca, agave. Soil leached pallid. A solitary windmill whirls, no buildings near. A herd of sheep. Zopilotes swoop.

And somewhere out there lies Mexico.

Into a canyon, the deep-green Pecos River shaving the red sandstone walls.

Longview and a sight of that Big River once more. Over yonder, the Hanging Judge’s ranch.

Land rises into hills and buttes, thick layers of wind-eaten rock, eroded soil, barren arroyos.

By late morning, animals have retreated from the heat, and I am sleepy.

But when I awaken, it is still the same desert. Orange butterflies dart amongst flowering bushes.

Before Sanderson, our train sidewinds, then continues straight like always. Across Warbur Flats, Marathon Flats, part of the Comanche Trail. Glass Mountain to the north. Across a broad, ancient volcanic flow.

Sometime before Alpine, up on a southern slope not too far from the tracks, sits a stagecoach driven by three dummies, teamed by four silhouette horses. The air is parched in the Gateway to Big Bend National Park.

Flat-bottomed cumulus spot the sky. The distance is hazed by heat. Whirlwinds spin. Some small town somewhere and an abandoned cattle loader, a large maze of chutes. A deer runs towards the West Mountains that climb, shadowed by clouds.

All along Texas one sees the occasional herd of longhorns and ranches. This is a mostly open country – though not desolate. For this desert holds so much life for those who are willing to still themselves – to watch, to meditate, to listen – not with ears, but with Spirit.

And its colors so pale, so leached, so eroded. Beige, tan, pink, ochre. Sage, bright green, yellow-green. Grey, black, bone-white, bleached-bone-white. The blue sky – bright above, fading towards the horizon.

Another town, Valentine, of rust-lace tin roofs, melting adobe. The sand is embossed by prints. Another Union Pacific train of Mexican boxcars. A pair of dirt devils dervish across the desert. La Migra patrols the chain-link border. We wait for three freighters to pass.

Rain falls upon those mountains. Twisted carcasses of derailments. Dry gulches, dry washes, canyons. Clouds thicken overhead, their rains eluding us. The surrounding land relaxes.

 

We near El Paso, drifting past irrigated orchards and fields of blooming cotton, past a campo santo, a trailer park, our horn blowing and blowing. A sister and brother walking up Álvarez Road wave to our now-creeping train. We must wait for a carguero: seven locomotives, 115 cars.

We are just, just within reach of El Paso. It is now 4:20 p.m. The conductor announces our delay: We are behind two freight trains awaiting relief crews. We don’t know how long it will be before we can arrive in El Paso.

To our left is a high school. Football teams practice under the hot, late-afternoon sun. Male passengers watch.

A quarter-hour later we crawl a few hundred yards. Again we stop dead. Now we are beside a warehouse and lot, beside fields of brush and more cotton.

By 5 p.m. we jerk nearer El Paso. The first call for dinner comes. I look out the window. There are no tracks on either side of us. I go down and pull my knapsack out from behind, beneath others’ luggage. It’s now 5:20 p.m.

The conductor gives us an update on our position. We’re now moving up a bit, half up-limit. Then we have two trains that have to move to the left. Then we can switch from Track 1 to Track 2 and go on in to El Paso. Five-forty-five p.m. – one down, one to go, he tells us.

Suddenly we are moving into the web of the railyard, clicking, clicking, Crossing bells clang, our horn blasts. Under an interstate overpass, its leggings painted with portraits of Che Guevara, Pancho Villa and the Virgen de Guadalupe. The sky is beginning to darken with a muted dusk. Those rain-wettened mountains draw nearer. But here it is dry. The streets are full of traffic. These rails are full of traffic.

And finally, at 6:10 p.m., I step into El Paso. I watch that train leave to chase this day’s sunset.

IF THERE’S A TRAIN TO TAKE, I WILL FIND IT

train, map, El Salvador

The rail line from Sonsonate heads eastward. Armenia is about half-ways to San Salvador. photo by Lorraine Caputo

(27 April 1998 / Sonsonate-Armenia, El Salvador)

 

So many people had told me there is no train in El Salvador. But I found one, across from the city market, hidden behind the jumble of stalls.

Here is the worn-brick station of Sonsonate, with termite-eaten door jams and decaying, faded-green ceiling and partition walls. Inside people wait on scattered benches for this train to Armenia that departs four times per day. Bundles of rainbow hammocks and baskets lie at their feet. Food is being sold at stalls.

Clanging bells, the horn blow, the hum of locomotives swell around this building. A freight train of a dozen black tanker cars and a yellow caboose arrives from Acajutla. It rumbles into the yard and a bit beyond, blocking the street. On the side of its silver, yellow-green and red engines, in capital italic letters, is written FENADESAL.

Out by the shed, a man hops onto the roundtable. He turns it to connect the track for a locomotive to come and hook onto the freight train, now split in half. The other part attaches to two green passenger cars. The front one is an old boxcar with several lengthwise benches. The second is an ancient passenger vagón with wooden seats facing each other.

A thick line quickly forms at the ticket window. “Armenia, por favor,” I request. “Dos colones,” the man replies in a dry monotone. He hands me a ticket printed on recycled paper. I join the growing crowd of passengers at the armed-guard barriers.

The gate opens. We stream down the tracks to those two cars. On the rails behind the taller sag an old steam locomotive and passenger vagones. In the brush a grey cat slinks. It stops, tense, tail twitching. It then jumps, disappearing into the weeds.

Already all the seats in the second car are taken. The vestibules are full of people. The jumble of conversations, the rustle of today’s paper being read fill the air.

 

The schedule posted in the station said this train should leave at 9:10 a.m. but we won’t depart until nine-thirty. That time slips by. Then the long hiss of brakes, bells clanging. We pull away slowly on the click of rails.

A steady blast of horn. Past houses, past restaurant and market stalls so close to the tracks you can touch them. Past Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles church, rocking, swaying.

Homes of cane slat and palm thatch begin moving further away. Wood fires smoke. In one yard, children play. In a doorway, a man stands. And over there, women sit around a table. They stop their conversation, watching us clatter by.

 

Our first stop is at the dirt crossroads of a village. Casas hide behind banana and mango tree hedges.

The tall, beer-gut conductor checks our tickets, collects fares. Now and then he adjusts the navy scarf at his neck, the Chisox ball cap, the dark sunglasses.

A woman sits looking out the window, two trussed roosters at her feet.

On one stretch of tracks, men are working.

 

Some passengers wish to debark. The tan-uniformed flagman stands on the back vestibule, leaning out, waving a cloth. The train quickly jerks to a halt.

Our dust flies around campos of corn, or sugar cane, and into open windows. As we cross a strong creek, some children o-oo-o. A father and son silently watch the world crawl by.

Behind trees, behind brush, I catch glimpses of fields and houses. In an irrigation ditch of waist-high water, a woman scrubs clothes. Men plant fresh-plowed, rich-brown earth. A man leans on the handle of his shovel, chine resting on crossed arms. Homes of palm-leaf walls. Coconut groves.

 

At Coluco, many come and go. An older woman next to me, in a dirty pink dress, leans out the window and whistles. As we pull away, she waves goodbye, her hand holding a bag. He small-framed daughter sits across from me. Her large, sad eyes are tearful. She clutches a handkerchief in one hand. Her upper lip is tight. Mid-morning sweat plasters thin strands of hair to her forehead.

I glance out the window. There a young girl, about the same age, stands outside a gate. She wears nothing more than a bright magenta skirt and loose black hair. Wild curls fall into her face.

Along a wall, women wait to fill plastic urns at the village tap. A silvery stream of water fills one jug. Drops glitter on the women’s sun-red arm.

 

Another stop. The flagman notices some women boarding, troubled with their heavy bundles. He puts his hand up, telling the engineer to hold on. He then hops off his vestibule and runs to help them.

Past a small cafetal, into an eerie landscape of black lava stone. The train’s clatter is like a heartbeat.

 

The man and his son have gotten off someplace. Into Los Lagartos, its old adobe station patched and white-washed. The train rocks me to sleep. I drift in and out at each dusty, unsigned roadside stop. The sad-eyed girl leaves.

The dry season has been searing this year. Unirrigated soil is parched. Leaves shrivel on coffee trees. Corn stubble is brittle.

A pig squeals distressingly. In the next car up, a man struggles to load it on.

 

Finally we arrive at Armenia. It is 11 a.m. Our locomotive detaches and disappears to San Salvador with the tanker cars. We are abandoned amidst a string of tracks. Up ahead, at the station, awaits an engine to hook up to these cars and journey back to Sonsonate.

 

 

CATALOG – Poetry & Travel Books – 2021

Stroll through this gallery of my poetry and travel publications presently available – invitations to join me in poetic journeys to Patagonia, the Galapagos Islands and the northern coast of Peru … and guides to help you plan your own journeys through Latin America!

(And they also make great gifts for the travelers in your life!)

Safe Journeys!

NEW PUBLICATIONS : Poetic and Travel – March Equinox 2021

NEW PUBLICATIONS : Poetic and Travel – March Equinox 2021

Indeed, my poetry and travel writing continue to appear in journals and on websites around the world – this quarter, in the US, Singapore, the UK, Canada, the Philippines and Denmark.

In the realm of travel narrative, we enter a time capsule, back to Nicaragua of the 1990s.

Spend this March equinox browsing through the list (with links) below, poetically journeying to Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, the Galápagos Islands, Peru, Chile, the US, Honduras, Panama, Argentina, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Bolivia and Guatemala.

 And until we next meet …..

Safe Journeys!

Galapagos, marine iguana

Dreaming with a marine iguana. Tortuga Bay, Isla Santa Cruz, Islas Galápagos. photo © Lorraine Caputo

NEW LITERARY EXPRESSIONS

“Silence” in Flora Fiction Literary Magazine (Volume 1, Issue 4, Winter 2020)

“New Morn Swaying,” in Trouvaille Review (24 December 2020)

“Being” and “Volcanic Dreams” in The Tiger Moth Review (Singapore) (Issue 5, January 2021)

“Shadows” in Credo Espoir (Issue 7, January 2021)

“Morning on the Llanos,” “Becoming Rain,” “Into Muted Dusk” and “Arica Morn” in Otherwise Engaged Literature & Arts Journal (Sixth Volume, Winter 2020)

“Nightfall” in New Feathers Anthology 2020 (2021)

“To Build a Snowman,” “In the Shallows,” “Sonata for a Late Afternoon” and “Bocas Morning” in The Poet Magazine (UK) – Childhood (Winter 2020, Volume 2)

“The Wait” in Writing in a Woman’s Voice (21 January 2021)

“Sfumato,” “Spirit Suite – Étude Nº 15” and “Future Dreams” in Impspired Anthology (UK) (Volume 4, January 2021)

“Squalling” in The Literary Nest (29 January 2021)

“Sunrise River” in Visitant Lit (3 February 2021)

“Elusion” and “Traveling Down a Country Lane” in Backchannels Journal (Issue Nº 7, Winter 2020)

“Ruta de Cacao” and “The Desert & Its Sea” in Beliveau Review (Canada) (Issue 4, Spring 2021)

“Iguana Dreams,” “Astray,” “Arica” and “Ghosts” in Lothlorien Poetry Journal (England) (12 February 2021)

“Meditation: Galápagos Seas” in Poetry & Places (12 February 2021)

“Resurrection Dawn” in Black Coffee Review (Spring 2021)

“San José Days” in The Drabble (28 February 2021)

“High Plains Sojourn” in Celestal Review (Philippines) (Cycle IV, March 2021)

“Izabal Wind” in Verse-Virtual (March 2021)

“Umbral Rains” and “Dusk” in bones (Denmark) (22, March 2021)

“Harbinger” in The Abyss (17 March 2021)

(Reading) Dando Paz - Giving Peace (26 D 2020)

… and a virtual  poetry reading with an incredible line-up of poets in which I was the featured creator, hosted by Tammy Gómez

Dando Paz – Giving Peace

26 December 2020

Nicaragua

NEW TRAVEL EXPRESSIONS

            Synchronized Chaos

“Revisiting a Memory” (February 2021)

If you are in need of an article for your publication or website, a translation – or your dissertation, book or article proofread / edited, please feel free to contact me. I am also available to participate in literary events.

LIFELINE

(Veracruz to Mexico City, January 1997)

Mexico, train, Veracruz, Mexico City, pulque

Several train routes connected Mexico City with the port of Veracruz: one through Córdoba, popularly known as El Jarocho, and another by way of Xalapa – our adventure for today. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Through the Veracruz railyard and past its old boxcars turned into homes. A woman stands in the doorway of one, vigorously brushing her teeth.

The city slowly thins into village after village. Outside whitewashed buildings stand horses.

A turquoise-shirted man rides his broad-flanked chestnut horse. And the narrowing road along the tracks becomes dirt, the village’s rangelands with cattle. With a large plastic-bag-wrapped bundle tied onto the handlebars, an old man on a bicycle wobbles around the scattered stones. His stout-crowned, high-brimmed Veracruzan hat shadows his face.

We pass by broad, treed flatlands … a pasture of thin-legged colts trotting after mares. To the south stretch low, hazy hills. Past fields of full-grown sugar cane … then younger fields … and newly planted fields. Past rocky acres of dried cornstalks snapped over.

I am startled awake from a catnap by the screeching caterwauling of a young boy. He closes his eyes tightly, singing with full lung to be heard at the other end of this car. Soon he begins to walk down the aisle. His outstretched hand shakes. Through narrowed eyes I glare at him, still angered at the rude awakening. But then I dig into my pocket for a few coins. I turn to the elderly man now sitting next to me, shaking my head, rolling my eyes. He laughs softly and nods.

A woman comes before us, bucket full of sweet tamales, of pineapple, coconut. The old man insists on buying me one of each. “A gift,” he says. “You must try our regional specialty.”

Don Emilio tells me and the woman seed across from us about the tamales of Oaxaca, of Guadalajara, of Tampico.

“I have traveled much,” he says, pulling off his brown jacket. The day is warming. “I used to drive buses. For over thirty years, I did. I first got my license in 1955. But I’d already been driving five years without one. Then I got certified. Yes, I know all the roads, north to Tampico and to Monterrey, down to Villahermosa. But in those early days there weren’t many roads in Chiapas. The Indians there would walk through the mountains for days and days.”

“Really,” the woman on the opposite bench says, her mouth dropping open a bit.

“Oh, yes. They’re used to it. They are people of the mountains. And they have other interesting foods …”

My mind fatigued with now-this-second day of traveling loses itself to the passing scenery.

LOS ÍDOLOS

Brightly painted wooden walls surround a blue and white big top. Drying clothes hang on the guidewires. Zullman Circus, those walls proclaim. The hypnosis master’s penetrating eyes watch us clatter by.

The woman’s four-year-old son with bright black eyes squeals, hops up and down in his seat, playing peek-a-boo with another boy at the opposite end of the car.

“Don Emilio, how many children do you have?” I ask.

“Five – full grown.”

“Any grandchildren yet?”

His soft laugh, bright smile fills the air between us. “Grandchildren? I’ve already got great-grand-children! My two daughters work for social security there in Veracruz. One of them, the nurse, has a small son. Her man left her. One son lives in Monterrey – has two children, now with their own. He married young. Another in Guadalajara. He has three. They wanted to become bus drivers like their father. What could I say? Nothing – just advise them it is lonely, dangerous work. And my other son, he still lives with us. Twenty-two years old.”

Suddenly the mountains rise before us and their valleys fold deeply. Heavily forested, heavily green. The earth softly crumples around us. In the distance, the age-worn, bare walls of a canyon fall, falling … then disappear from our sight with the swelling of the landscape around us.

And just as suddenly, the land relaxes and gently rolls to the further mountains.

XALAPA

I awaken here to the swishing of a broom as our floor is swept. Two cargo cars are added. We leave exactly at noon. This city, too, feathers into the surrounding desert.

A cow grazes next to the tracks, tied off to the post of a barbed-wire fence, where laid-over clothes dry in the afternoon.

Two boys, black-haired, brown-skinned, stoop outside a scrap-board, scrap-tin shanty. Their dark eyes watch our blue cars go by.

Past lush pasturelands of grazing sheep. A black lamb, a white and a tan one leap after their white mother. Another spread of emerald green. Egrets standing on stick legs among black and white cows.

PEROTE

The high black walls of a prison slide by as we arrive at this town. A woman with very-coarse vein-knotted legs sells pulque in plastic bottles. From the platform, she reaches up to the open windows of our car. As we leave, she shakes a smaller bottle and drinks the last bit.

Past more cornfields speckled with husky maguey. Sand wraps around the train, around the clicking rails. The fine dirt seeps through the cracks of windows. In the distance, a dust devil rises, swirling, growing larger.

“There is Orizaba volcano.” Emilio cracks my silent meditation of this nearer landscape.

I follow his dark hand, to where he points in the distance. Its snow-streaked peak is hazed by the dust of this broad valley we pass through. The sun glints off a silver band on his ring finger.

“And your wife, don Emilio?”

“Oh, she’s back in Zempoala, where we live. She’s used to me being gone all the time.”

“How long have you two been married?”

“Oh ….” His neck rubs the slightly worn collar of his white shirt. “It must be going on forty years now.” He counts off on his stout fingers with short-cut nails. “Let’s see, sixty to seventy,” he mumbles, “seventy to eighty to ninety … Yes, almost forty years.”

“What’s the secret?”

He looks at me askance with his dark eyes, with a slight laugh. “We never argue. Well, almost never. A bit more now that the kids are gone. But, no, we never argue.

“It was never easy, though. In the beginning it was difficult. We lived in a four-by-four shack. With a bit of time, we enlarged it to ten by six. By then we had three children. Later we could buy a house.

“In the beginning, my wife insisted on working, taking in sewing. After our second child, I told her, no more. You have enough work to do, taking care of the boys. No, you let me bring in the money. And I worked, and worked hard. I was gone much of the time.”

La Malinche Mountain tears the horizon towards which we travel. A herd of goats chew on bedded corn. They flee the hum of our diesel locomotive, its plume of smoke casting a shadow on the ground alongside us.

And more fields through this valley plain. Some have been cleared for planting. In a few, long, high irrigation snakes hiss water.

SAN LORENZO

In the station lights outside my window, I see six guards, black pants tucked into black boots. Mismatched jackets: a blue one … a Raiders one … two fatigue greens … two black. Five of them sling semi-automatic rifles.

I whisper to Emilio, leaning towards him. “Why are there so many of them?”

He silently shrugs.

A wildfire cuts across the flatland, a long rose rope. Even though it is many miles away, I can smell the burning grasses. Flames leap into the dense, dusky-gold smoke that reaches for the soon-to-be-setting sun. That star washes the sky bright white, bright yellow.

And on the opposite side of the sky, the ghostly near-full moon has already arisen.

The sun has fallen behind a bank of clouds, touching their tops with a brilliant white-gold, dyeing the sky with pastel colors.

Then it slips through a crack in those clouds … for just a moment glaringly orange … and again dipping behind, pale tints spreading across the distant mountains. Faint fingers of light radiate skyward … and then weakly disappear.

The now-bright-red sun cuts below the edge … sinking … pulling its colors down with itself … behind another cloud … just a sliver visible. The vague forms of those masks outlined … and defined for just an instant … before that star falls beyond the horizon.

All that’s left … is a chilled rose … and above, the golden white … fading … fading … fading  …

A distant valley fills with fuchsia. And as we slide along these rails, the most brilliant of that pink shifts behind the mountains … hidden from my sight … leaving just a pale wash.

Then the colors arise again with new life … reaching into the clouds … painting them icy apricot … icy magenta … in this still-winter sky … giving depth and texture to that soft … seemingly solid … blanket.

Lights begin to speckle the passing villages. The chill of night swells within this railcar.

The landscape obscures into dull, dark green against faded beige … silhouetted against the twilight sky. Their colors, too, sink into deep greys to black.

The sky duskens … darkens. The last of the sun’s palette duskens … darkens. This land duskens … darkens.

The locomotive lamp before us barely touches the nightfall.

“You should come visit us sometime.” I hear don Emilio’s voice in the dark. “We have pyramids and a beautiful beach. Really, you should.”

I write down his address by flashlight.

MEXICO CITY

From a distance, the light of the City … millions of lights … stud the valley and climb the mountains. The sour smell of heavy-metal industry seeps through this window.

Past traffic stopped by our lumbering train, now only two passenger cars and a locomotive. I don’t know when the cargo cars were unhooked. Sometime in the depths of my travel-fatigued sleep.

Past shacks built at the edge of the tracks.

The moon, two days from fullness, sheds its bright white light upon this city, flooding the streets, penetrating the ochre haze of pollution.

Don Emilio walks onto the platform at the stop before Buenavista station. Light brown jacket. Black bag to his left side, its strap across his broad chest. Green plastic bag with his fifteen sweet tamales in hand. He looks straight ahead in his steady gait, stopping momentarily, continuing on, lost to my sight, lost in the crowd.

And I continue on, watching Chilangos stand at gateways, talking. They walk in pairs down deserted streets. The roads below our overpass are congested.

Rocking … Rocking … The blare of the train horn.

Past a soccer game.

Rolling, without stopping, into the heart of the city.

Past factories and their acrid smoke swirling white into the night. Past neighborhoods. In the open doorway of a shop bright with fruit, a woman’s shadow reaches across the counter, taking a heavy bag.

My study of this passing cityscape is sliced by the young men now sitting in the bench seat facing mine.

“Oh, man, we should be on our way to Aca-pulque,” one laughs.

The other drains the last drops of the cactus liquor from the green plastic bottle. He stuffs it between his seat and the wall. “Ah, yes, in a pulque-man car, going in style.” He slouches, knees inches from mine.

I turn my gaze out the window once more.

We snarl the traffic with our steady approach.

Past a Virgin of Guadalupe shrine near the tracks. A string of lights embrace it. On a corner curb, a young woman sits on her boyfriend’s knee.

The train backfires repeatedly as it slows … coming into the edges of the railyard … entering the massive web of tracks. The horn blows. Idle cargo and tanker cars line the sidings.

We suddenly stop, forced aside by a long string of US railcars heading North, new automobiles encased in silver cocoons. A while later, three lone locomotives stop. And starting again, they bathe the night with thick black smoke.

The city lights flickering through the window mosaic the youth’s waving hand. “Oh, of course not, chauffeur. There is no hurry. Sure, go ahead and have that other cup of coffee.”

And the moon climbs higher … and higher. Its light pulls up out of the streets into the greyed sky.

The other young man scowls. “Hey, come on. Save that cigar smoking for later, man.”

With a soft giggle, I crack a smile.

Further into the depths of the maze. Trash heaps along a wall that separates this yard from those neighborhoods.

Stop … and go … and …

Finally the conductor says in his loud voice

BUENAVISTA

And we enter the last set of tracks. Brakes clank stop, and rolling on and on. The platform comes into view up ahead. So slow … we crawl … to ours … Number 8 … and alongside it.

NEW YEAR’S EVE IN LATIN AMERICA : A Photographic – Poetic Journey

At the stroke of midnight, eat one grape at each toll, making a wish of what you desire the New Year to bring you. ©Lorraine Caputo

At the stroke of midnight, eat one grape at each toll, making a wish of what you desire the New Year to bring you. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

Tonight, as this old year ends, people will be celebrating throughout Latin America. Fireworks burst across the midnight sky, and twelve grapes are eaten with each stroke of that hour, to bring twelve wishes to fruition. Viejos (Old Man Year) are set afire, finally exploding into a million sparks shooting into the new year. Food and liquor flow into the wee hours.

One of Latin America’s most common New Year Eve traditions is the Old Man Years, often representing politicians, sports stars or other people in the news. photo © Lorraine Caputo

One of Latin America’s most common New Year Eve traditions is the Old Man Years, often representing politicians, sports stars or other people in the news. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The most explosive of the customs is the Años Viejos (Old Man Years). These effigies represent politicians, sports figures, entertainment celebrities or other famous persons. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, they are dragged to the middle of the street and lit ablaze. Once the flames reach the center of the effigy, the fireworks stuffing explodes.

Some Latin American neighborhoods have contests for the best one, in which civilians and public services, like the bomberos (fire department), participate. In Ecuador, the end-of-year custom also includes displays summarizing the year’s events in political, sporting and other arenas. Often Años Viejos are accompanied with a testamento, a word of advice or with a list of the things to be burned before the New Year begins.

Colombians believe that a sheath of wheat placed in your home brings abundant food and prosperity in the New Year. ©Lorraine Caputo

Colombians believe that a sheaf of wheat placed in your home brings abundant food and prosperity in the New Year. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

Colombia has a bevy of traditions (agüeros) not practiced in other parts of Latin America. They believe that a sheath of wheat placed in your home brings abundant food and prosperity in the New Year. At the stroke of midnight, Colombians walk around the block with a suitcase (to bring lots of travel in the next year), count money over and again (to make it multiply), or take a champagne bath (to ensure good fortune and prosperity). They also have a number of other ways to draw wealth, good luck — and even to divine the future year.

Yellow for luck in life, red for luck in love. ©Lorraine Caputo

Yellow for luck in life, red for luck in love. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

One custom that Colombia shares with its southern neighbor, Ecuador, is wearing yellow underwear to draw good vibes. Red will fulfill passionate desires.

Ecuador’s most unique New Years’ custom is the Viudas Alegres, or Merry Widows. ©Lorraine Caputo

Ecuador’s most unique New Years’ custom is the Viudas Alegres, or Merry Widows. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

But besides the fireworks and the Viejos, that equatorial country seems to have something all its own: the Viudas Alegres, or the Merry Widows. Ecuadorian men dress up as women and joyfully greet all on the streets. Why do the men do this? Some state that these are the Merry Widows of Old Man Year, so happy to see him finally gone and done with. Others say, to disguise themselves from the problems of the old year, so those troubles don’t follow them into the New Year. But you’ll see everyone, man and woman, child and adult, dressing up. Quito’s Centro Histórico streets are crowded with vendors selling everything from cheap, florescent wigs to pointy witches’ hats to help outfit the Viudas.

Street vendors and shops begin selling colorful wigs the day after Christmas. ©Lorraine Caputo

Street vendors and shops begin selling colorful wigs the day after Christmas. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

The perfect eyelashes to go along with your new hair-do. You may also pick up shimmering, pointy witches’ hats, and an array of body parts: breasts, tushes, and aprons covering the (ahem) nether regions. ©Lorraine Caputo

The perfect eyelashes to go along with your new hair-do. You may also pick up shimmering, pointy witches’ hats, and an array of body parts: breasts, tushes, and aprons covering the (ahem) nether regions. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

Another Ecuadorian custom is to have a baño – or spiritual bath, to cleanse oneself of negative energies. Business owners also sweep their stores clean, from back rooms to the front door, with brooms made of eucalyptus, rue, chamomile and other herbs, then lock the shop up tight until the New Year.

To enter the New Year spiritually clean, Ecuadorians line up for a baño. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

To enter the New Year spiritually clean, Ecuadorians line up for a baño. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

Since 1988, I have spent most northern winters travelling in Latin America. I have rung in the New Year in large cities and small towns in Mexico, Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina.

One scene that stays with me – that I have never witnessed before or since – are the fireworks in Santiago de Chile: The burst formed one giant blue heart, from which emerged another blue heart and yet another and yet another … Such a beautiful way to end a night of feasting, drinking and bottle dancing in the middle of a street at a block party.

In Trujillo (Honduras), like everyone else, I dodged the Bárbaro. This Garífuna custom involves a bare-chested man dressed in a grass mini-skirt, covered in rouge or grease, demanding spare change from all on the street. (The money is used for community parties and projects.) If you don’t give him even a mere centavito, he will give you a big bear hug – thus covering you with grease (or rouge).

In Havana, I spent the night with Cubans, eating and dancing to the world’s best music. At the midnight hour, the national anthem played, everyone singing along, to mark another year of the Revolution. (Yes, that scene from the Godfather II is true: At the stroke of midnight, dictator Fulgencio Batista announced he was throwing in the towel and, loaded down with millions of dollars in cash, art and jewels, boarded a plane into exile, thus handing victory over to the guerrilleros after their decisive victory in Santa Clara, under the command of Ernesto “Che” Guevara.)

In Bucaramanga (Colombia), at the invitation of the hostels’ family, I lit a candle for my next year. In Puerto Ayora, Galápagos (Ecuador), I saw the beauty pageant in which those lovely Viudas Alegres showed off their talents, modeling and answering “probing” questions.

In Mexico, I pondered what the New Year would bring to a world on the brink of war. In Ecuador, I watched a Syrian refugee immerse himself in the local customs.

Today, let us poetically journey to these celebrations and ponderings.

May the New Year be full of Light, and wishes come true.

Safe Journeys!

“ … & at that hour / they are burnt …” photo © Lorraine Caputo

“ … & at that hour / they are burnt …” photo © Lorraine Caputo

WELCOMING THE NEW YEAR

(Colombia)

Midnight approaches

without a

bell toll

Already rockets burst

in green & white

in a red heart

against a sooty sky

The old men are dragged

to the streets

& at that hour

they are burnt

firework stuffing

exploding

& we eat grapes, one

by one

Gabriel counts his money

over & again

Rice is thrown, scattering

in the still air

Someone walks around a block

suitcase in hand

To welcome in a

better year

published in:

The Blue Hour (1 January 2013)

“ … blasts of fireworks / To scare away the demons …” photo © Lorraine Caputo

“ … blasts of fireworks / To scare away the demons …” photo © Lorraine Caputo

NEW YEAR’S TRIPTYCH

(Mexico)

I.

Outside the empty

streets echo

with blasts of fireworks

To scare away the demons

that lurk in the shadows

of time a-changing

& within this silent house

my mind echoes

Scare away those demons

of war, hunger, disease

Scare away those demons

of misery & poverty

Scare away those demons

of corporate greed

that is destroying this planet

II.

At midnight

the streets fall silent

I eat a grape

at each stroke of the hour

& wish

May there be no war

& wish

May there be peace on earth

& then

more cracks to scare

the last demons away

III.

Come dawn

the smell of a fire

creeps along the

abandoned streets

A police car’s red-blue-red-blue-

yellow lights silently

reflect off windows

Standing in the

ochre fog that slithers

past sleeping homes

& closed shops

I look for an answer

of what this new year

may hold

published in:

The Blue Hour (1 January 2013)

“& the man in the bright pink wig dances …” photo © Lorraine Caputo

“& the man in the bright pink wig dances …” photo © Lorraine Caputo

DANCE FOR A NEW YEAR

(Ecuador)

The near-midnight streets

are littered with

the frenzied sales of this day

Someone sweeps them

into large piles

& sets them ablaze

On one corner a family sits

drinking to music

& the man in the bright pink wig dances

On corners

& midways down blocks

the Merry Widows of this dying year

stop cars for coins

dancing, lying atop hoods

& the man in the bright pink wig dances

On stages decked with eucalyptus

Old Man Years slump in plastic chairs

a DJ spins, a young woman sings

& the man in the bright pink wig

dances with abandon

The midnight hour

the Old Men are dragged to

the center of those cobblestone streets

gasoline poured & set afire

& the man in the bright pink wig

dances with frenzy

As far as the streets climb

steeply up, the fires blaze, fireworks

explode

& the man in the bright pink wig

frantically dances

to forget he cannot go home

to his war-rent country

his family cannot get out

his uncle dies of poisoned water

a wife to be found, a family to be formed

Heavy smoke filled the narrow streets

stinging eyes, burning lungs

creeping past shuttered shops

creeping past the migrant indigenous

families come to the city for work

round dancing to Andean cumbia

& the man in the bright pink wig

dances, dances

published in:

Prachya Review (Bangladesh) (Summer 2016)

“Music of distant parties throbs in the land’s crimps.” photo © Lorraine Caputo

MIDNIGHT TOLL

(Ecuador)

Even before those

midnight bells ring

This valley resounds with the explosion, the sizzle of fireworks spiraling green, white, red sparks against the yellow-light speckled hills.

The Old Men are dragged to the streets & set afire. Eager to see this year ended, people leap over the flames, beckoning luck to come.

Yet I await that

new year hour to toll

Awaiting to embrace my future dreams

bursting, sizzling before

The fireworks die … fading. Silence fills the streets. Music of distant parties throbs in the land’s crimps.

The smoke of Old Man Year’s fires & of the fireworks lowers with the silence, mingling with the clouds lowering, obscuring this valley’s slopes.

published as “Another New Year’s Eve” in:

Tigershark (UK) (Issue 28, December 2020)

Another year ends, another yet begins. ©Lorraine Caputo

Another year ends, another yet begins. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

CHRISTMAS IN LATIN AMERICA : A Poetic – Photographic Journey

Navidad procession in El Cocuy, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Navidad procession in El Cocuy, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The streets are crowded with people rushing from shop to shop, buying gifts. Vendors call, Wrapping paper, five sheets for a dollar! Barely heard above the ruckus are the greetings of the jolly fat man dressed in red, perhaps accompanied by two curvaceous elves dressed in micro-minis. At schools and workplaces, partiers are dressed in costume, and bags of candies or large boxes of viveres (dry goods) gifted.

Pase de Niño. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Pase de Niño. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Processions wind through narrow streets. From before Christmas through the Feast of Epiphany, city traffic will be stopped for the Pase del Niño. Schoolchildren dress as José, María, the three Wise Men, shepherds (pastores) and angels to accompany the baby Christ. And, of course, in the novena leading up to Christmas Day, the pre-dawn prayers and song of the faithful softly echo down the cobblestone lanes.

Large manger scenes decorate the churches, homes and even hilltops. In living rooms, families read the novena in front of the nativity scene. On Nochebuena (Christmas Eve), they go to the special mass where the baby Jesus is presented, kissed by all, then placed in the manger scene. The midnight sky is painted by the bursts of hundreds of fireworks, celebrating the birth of the Lord Savior. After the mass, families retire home for a big feast and to exchange gifts. (In few places do they keep the custom of gift-giving on the Feast of Epiphany, the Day of the Three Magi – 6 January.)

Christmas-season dinners differ from country to country. There may be turkey or tamales (a.k.a. hallacas). A Mexican side dish is ensalada de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve Salad), made of apple, celery and walnuts dressed with heavy cream. In Argentina, they’ll be sitting down to a parrillada (barbecue). A common desert is pan de Pascua or panetón, similar to the Italian delicacy, panettone (a sweet bread with dried fruits and nuts). Rompope, a drink very much like eggnog, will be spiked with rum; this typical drink is called cola de mono in Chile.

Everywhere, villancicos are sung. Some of these Christmas carols are familiar, like Noche de Paz (Silent Night). Others are unique to Latin America, such as El Burrito Sabanero. Unlike northern European (including US) traditions, caroling from house to house is not common.

In Latin America, the weeks leading up to 25 December are like much elsewhere. But each country, each place also has its traditions.

In Mexico, are the posadas, nine days of processions through neighborhoods, topped off with tamales and hot atole drink. Also in Mexico – specifically Oaxaca – is the Noche de Rábanos, or Night of the Radishes, celebrated on 23 December with a popular competition of the best-carved giant radishes.

In Trujillo, on Honduras’ Caribbean coast, the Indio Bárbaro accosts people for donations to community projects. If you happen to be out on the street when he passes by, and you refuse to give him a “tip,” he will bear-hug you with his grease-covered body! Another Garífuna tradition in these Black Caribe towns, is Hüngühüngü (also called Fedu), the women-oriented processions of the singing, dancing grandmas.

Cousin Its in Málaga, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Cousin Its in Málaga, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo

During the Christmas novena (16-24 December) in the small mountain village of Málaga (Colombia), teens dress up as Matachines (masked, Cousin-It-looking creatures). They prowl the streets, brandishing gaily painted, inflated cow’s bladders. Money collected from would-be wallop victims is used to fund the carrazo floats in the parades at the beginning of January.

Everyone heads to the beach during the Christmas-New Year holiday, if they can. Prices rise – for transport, lodging and food – and the strand is über-crowded with lots of drinking people blaring music. This is definitely a time to witness Latin American partying at its finest. (If you prefer your beach scene to be, well, rather saner, I recommend you wait. Leave the beaches to the locals during holidays – you can go any time.) And some folk, in order to finance these family vacations, resort to petty thievery in the weeks leading up to the holiday: Keep an eye on your belongings!


Since 1988, I have spent most northern winters travelling in Latin America. I have passed the Christmas season in large cities and small towns in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina.

I have witnessed and celebrated many of these traditions. My encounter with the Indio Bárbaro in Trujillo (me, barefoot, recuperating from a broken toe, returning from the beach with nary a centavito in my shorts, is one of the culturally most embarrassing moments I’ve ever, well, enacted …) In Estelí (Nicaragua), I shared a meal with a Quebecois, of whatever special things we could find in the market ($1 US for an apple!). In Chile, I took a train on Christmas Eve, arriving in the capital like the Virgin Mary: no room at the inns.

Today, let’s take a poetic-photographic trip through the sights and sounds of Navidad in Latin America.

And however and wherever you are celebrating this holiday, may your season be bright, and the New Year be full of wishes come true.

Safe Journeys!

This beautiful pesebre in Iglesia Señora del Carmen (Pamplona, Colombia) extends half-ways down the nave. photo © Lorraine Caputo

This beautiful pesebre in Iglesia Señora del Carmen (Pamplona, Colombia) extends half-ways down the nave. photo © Lorraine Caputo

For the past few weeks, Catholic churches and public spaces throughout Latin America have displayed crèches, These Nativity scenes – called belén (Bethlehem), nacimiento or pesebre in Spanish – display Mary (María), Joseph (José) and the three Kings (Tres Magos or Tres Reyes Magos) along with shepherds and angels.

Beyond the usual cast of characters, though, is a motley assembly of animals: Among the expected sheep, camels and burros are farm animals – chickens, pigs, cows, etc. – and local fauna, like llama. The animals and humans are of a variety of sizes. It is not unusual to see a cock towering over a Magi.

MÉRIDA MAGI

(Mérida, Mexico)

In the oldest cathedral

on the American continent

built of Maya temple stones

On the day the Three Kings

visited the manger

in this side chapel

Mary tenderly places the Christ child in his cradle

Joseph presents him with out-stretched hand

Slowly the Magi approach

passing by a giant cow

by a giant tapir

Yellow lights drape the plastic pine boughs

& dried palm fronds hung

with colorful glass ornaments

They wink in electronic rhythm to

Oh, All ye faithful coming

shepherds     magi     & others

Hark! Do you hear the herald angels singing

with the jingling bells?

Even Santa Claus is coming to this town

on this silent night

when joy has entered the world

Frosty the Snowman watches

those who come a-wassailing

Through the open windows

wrought-iron-grilled

the sound & smell of traffic passes

The chapel begins to resound

with the cathedral bells pealing

for five-o-clock mass

published in:

The Poet Magazine (UK) (December 2020)

Iglesia San Sebastián, located on the eastern flank of the Panecillo (Calle Loja and Calle Borerro) reflects the barrio’s indigenous heritage: José and María are from the Shuar nation. The three Magi are from Otavalo, Esmeraldas and Tsáchila. The scene also includes the fathers and nuns of the Oblate order doing missionary work among Ecuador’s other indigenous nations. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Iglesia San Sebastián, located on the eastern flank of the Panecillo, reflects the barrio’s indigenous heritage: José and María are from the Shuar nation. The three Magi are from Otavalo, Esmeraldas and Tsáchila. The scene also includes the fathers and nuns of the Oblate order doing missionary work among Ecuador’s other indigenous nations. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The infant Jesus is not added to the Nativity scene until tonight, 24 December. At the night mass, the infant is presented to the congregation. Each devotee shall kiss him, before he is tenderly placed in the straw-filled cradle in the center of the pesebre.

The Latin American custom is for the family to attend mass together (however, the Misa de Gallos, or Midnight Mass is quite rare these days), and then break fast with a huge family meal.

NATIVITY

(Valladolid, Mexico)

Near midnight       on Christmas Eve

Within the aged church

 

A line of people slowly passes to the front

Each stoops to kiss

the Christ child nestled

in the arms of a woman

A nun stands next to her

handkerchief in hand

ready to wipe away lipstick

 

Fathers with their young sons and daughters

stop in front of the manger

framed in winking lights

to ponder the miracle

of the still-empty cradle

 

After the last mother, the last child

has welcomed that baby

He is laid into the straw-bedded cradle

his hands wide open to this world

his fat legs kicking the air

 

& the families step into the streets

washed clean by the rain

the sunset lightning had forebode

 

published in:

The Poet Magazine (UK) (December 2020)

In many Catholic homes, families also present a manger scene. In the evenings, they gather around it to say the novena and sing villencicos (Christmas carols). It is not uncommon for the manger cradle to hold more than one infant Jesus. They are the personal Christs of several generations of the family: mother, daughters, aunts, grandmother. photo © Lorraine Caputo

In many Catholic homes, families also present a manger scene. In the evenings, they gather around it to say the novena and sing villancicos (Christmas carols). It is not uncommon for the manger cradle to hold more than one infant Jesus. They are the personal Christs of several generations of the family: mother, daughters, aunts, grandmother. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Nativity scenes aren’t just relegated to churches. Many homes and businesses will also have one set up – like this inn in northern Mexico.

COURTYARD CRÈCHE

(San Fernando, Mexico)

The moon is almost full

sometimes visible through

the swift heavy clouds

 

Beneath, within the black of this night

Mary recently full, now illuminated

stares down upon her child

Her hands are crossed

against her full breasts

Joseph looks plaintively

upon her child

They are framed

in winking multi-color lights

Each strand alit for just a moment

then still in the gusty night

 

The courtyard is dark and quiet

Puddles from the days of passing rains

glisten in the holy lights of this chilled night

 

published in:

Tigershark (UK) (Issue 28, December 2020)

The scene in Quito’s most luxurious church, La Compañía, has a classic air to it, in harmony with the temple’s Baroque interior. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The scene in Quito’s most luxurious church, La Compañía, has a classic air to it, in harmony with the temple’s Baroque interior. photo © Lorraine Caputo

SOUNDS OF SILENCE

(Quito, Ecuador)

These Christmas Eve streets

echo with the mournful

song of a blind

man’s accordion

 

These Christmas Eve streets

beneath the dim light

of a waning crescent moon

yet to be arisen

 

These Christmas Eve streets

echoing with the footfall

of families going to mass

announced by silent bells

 

the cry of a new-born

babe in a manger

in a parish church

bathed in the perfume

of palo santo

 

The silence of footfalls

upon centuries-old

wooden floors

the silence of prayers

before the crèche broken

by a baby’s cry

 

These Christmas Eve streets

echoing with the silence

of the departed blind

accordion

 

published in:

Crêpe & Penn (Issue 8, June 2020)

The crèche in Iglesia La Merced, in the Historic Center of Lima, Peru, occupies one large side chapel of the church, and includes scenes of the Peruvian life in the countryside and the city. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The crèche in Iglesia La Merced, in the Historic Center of Lima, Peru, occupies one large side chapel of the church, and includes scenes of the Peruvian life in the countryside and the city. photo © Lorraine Caputo

We grow up with the tale of ghosts of Christmas past. In Northern European indigenous traditions, ghost stories are told around the Yule log. This season, it is believed, is one of the times of year when the veils between the World of the Living and the World of the Dead part, allowing families and friends to once again reunite.

One year in Buenos Aires, I could sense those spirits and I thought about relatives who had immigrated to that port city almost a century earlier.

MIDNIGHT NAVIDAD

(Buenos Aires, Argentina)

In these narrow streets

of San Telmo

lit by a nearly

full moon

 

Midnight Navidad

erupts with the burst

of fireworks

set by boys & men

The sparkles reflect

in windows of

Gardel’s day

The cracks splinter the

mourning song

of bandoneón

 

In the shadows

of doorways stand

families shawled in

the cool of summer’s eve

 

& the spirits perished

from cholera & yellow fever,

of immigrants surviving

in cramped conventillos

 

published in:

North Dakota Quarterly (issue 86.3 / 4, November 2019)

Iglesia Santo Domingo (Quito, Ecuador). photo © Lorraine Caputo

Iglesia Santo Domingo (Quito, Ecuador). photo © Lorraine Caputo

One thing – especially for travelers from the Northern Hemisphere – that is much different about Navidad in Latin America is that a White Christmas exists only in song. Only in the extreme north of Mexico (perhaps, depending on the year) and the highest of mountains will you find snow. Most of the region is located in the tropics, and it is summer south of the equator.

RESISTENCIA CHRISTMAS EVE

(Resistencia, Argentina)

All day
the heat, the humidity
strummed sultry,
multi-grey cumulus mounding
high into the heavens

until late afternoon
when its crescendo
erupted into thunder
pulsed by lightning

a rain washing
the blistered streets raw
& the clouds
into a uniform tone

Near midnight
the cathedral is dark
A man eats cake
before resting
on his blanket
upon the steps

A few kiosks are yet
grilling sandwiches, serving beer
to customers
at sidewalk tables

All else is closed
(save a pharmacy)
security guards murmur

Festive lights pulsate
in darkened windows
The laughter, the music
of a party drifts
down a deserted street

As that twelve o’clock hour nears
the crescendo of rockets
mounts, pulsed by sprays of
multi-colored sparks across
the heavens, clouds of gunpowder
drifting skywards
Resting birds startle
from a tree

The hotel watchman
sits in a lawn chair
on the front walk,
sipping sidra &
listening to chamamé
on his radio

published in:

Tigershark (UK) (Issue 28, December 2020)

A Nativity scene in Esquel, Argentina. photo © Lorraine Caputo

NEW PUBLICATIONS : Poetic and Travel – December Solstice 2020

Indeed, my poetry and travel writing continue to appear in journals and on websites around the world – in the US, Zimbabwe, the UK, Spain, Sweden and Ecuador.

In the realm of travel narrative – because of the continuing pandemic, I am on furlough with travel articles …. however, I do offer you a different kind of adventure we can embark on!

Colombia, Cartagena, Africa, culture, dance, poetry

“Near the statue of Pedro Heredia / Afro-Colombian youth / dance their traditions …” Cartagena Afternoon. photo © Lorraine Caputo

NEW LITERARY EXPRESSIONS

“Amazon Cantos” in The Literary Nest (Volume 6, Issue 3, September 2020)

“Mission,” “Six A.M.” and “Saint Francis Square” in Munyori Literary Journal (Zimbabwe-US) (10 October 2020)

“Cartagena Afternoon” in Poetry & Places (14 October 2020)

“Meditation” and “Ecce Homo” in Pensive: A Global Journal of Spirituality and the Arts (Autumn 2020)

“No Fare Away” in Dissonance Magazine (UK) (23 October 2020)

“Into the Yucatán” and “On the Magdalena” in Tigershark (UK) (Issue 27, October 2020)

“Drifting Under This Lune” and “Survival” in Verse-Virtual (November 2020)

“En la orilla” in Bajo Otros Cielos (España) (12 de noviembre 2020)

“On These Grey Sands” and “That Flower’s Perfume” in Tistelblomma (Sweden) (13 November 2020)

“Sumac Champey” in Poetry & Places (20 November 2020)

“Sueño Amazónico” in Obras Certamen Literario – Orellana Lee IV (Museo Arqueológico y Centro Cultural de Orellana-MACCO, 2020)

“Someplace on the Pampas,” “A Denali Summer,” and “Autumn Passages” in Scissortail Quarterly (November 2020)

“The City (Caracas),” “Pacific Eventide,” “Beach Meditations” and “Thinning” in Adelaide Literary Magazine (Lisboa / NYC) (Nº 42, November 2020)

“Sfumato,” “Spirit Suite – Étude Nº 15” and “Future Dreams” in Impspired (UK) (Nº 8, December 2020)

“Nightfall” in New Feathers Anthology (Winter 2020)

“Alba Galapagueña” and “Isla Negra” in Antología Poética – Galápagos International Poetry Festival (Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz: Galápagos Contracorriente, 2020)

“Mérida Magi,” “Nativity” and “Sounds of Silence” in The Poet Magazine (UK) (December 2020)

“Before the Lightening” in Visitant Lit (16 December 2020)

“Courtyard Crèche,” “Resistencia Christmas Eve,” “Another New Year’s Eve” and “Running” in Tigershark (UK) (Issue 28, December 2020)

And – in the Swedish journal Tistelblomma, an interview with me about my poetry and poetics …

Galapagos, poetry, Ecuador

Beneath the Enchanted Moon (Origami Poems, 2020)

Beneath the Enchanted Moon (Galápagos Nights) (Origami Poems Project, 2020)

Come … escape with me and pass nights beneath the enchanted moon … in the Galápagos Islands.

– a microchap of six poems from the Enchanted Isles – FREE to download … print it off and fold it for your own copy of this microchap!

– un micropoemario de seis poemas de las Islas Encantadas – GRATIS para bajar … imprímalo y dóblelo para su propia copia de este micropoemario!

Note: The layout is for a letter-sized (8.5 x 11 inches / 21.5 x 27.9 cm) sheet of paper

Nota: El diseño es para una hoja de papel de tamaño carta (21,5 x 27,9 cm / 8,5 x 11 pulgadas).

poetry, fundraiser, benefit, domestic abuse

My poems “Jungle Dawn” and “Beginnings” are included in this new anthology, Under a Blushing Sky: Poems about New Beginnings (2020)

  • The proceeds from the book will go to domestic violence related organizations: New Beginnings-Ending Domestic Violence and A Better Way (Seattle, Washington, USA).
maps, adventures, Latin America, Mexico, Central America, South America

Sometimes an adventure occurs in some destination that can never be revealed … photo © Lorraine Caputo

NEW TRAVEL EXPRESSIONS

            Lowestoft Chronicles

“Clandestine” (Issue 44, December 2020)

 

If you are in need of an article for your publication or website, a translation – or your dissertation, book or article proofread / edited, please feel free to contact me. I am also available to participate in literary events.

AN ADVENTURE’S TALE

Mexico, travelogue
Traveling northward from the Valley of Mexico. photo © Lorraine Caputo

= = = = = = =

An adventure is made up of many tales – some can be told, and others cannot. This is not a tale of sacred secrets nor mysteries. It is a tale of what I can tell.

= = = = = = =

I can feel the stone-mosaicked earth beneath my tennis shoes as I walk from the nearest village to the campsite. I stop for a moment, seeing the Pyramid of the Sun swirled in the low clouds of this morning, and think of how this adventure began.

Months ago, Alejandro, one of the head shamans of the Strength and Harmony Journey,1 passed through my village in the north. With him came a growing number of runners from the four directions. He asked me to come with them to Teotihuacán, to witness the ceremonies marking five hundred years of the European invasion of the Indigenous lands of Turtle Island – North America. I refused. I did not want to face its Spirit portals again – I feared its power. Still he told me he would see me here. Just before the ceremonies, I moved to Austin with some friends. Even before stepping into our new home, I told them I would return in a few weeks. The wind carrying the rains from the north carried me south, south of the border, south to the Valley of Mexico. I will never understand the why of this tale.

= = = = = = =

I near the gate of the site, shifting the weight of my old knapsack on my back. The air is sharp with the scent of wood fires and of sweet, cinnamoned coffee. Colorful bundles and worn packs are shoved into car trunks. Polyglot goodbyes are shouted. Already car after car is leaving for the north again, carrying home the hundreds who ran from their homes, throughout Turtle Island, to this Valley. Soon this mud will hold only our footprints.

I move toward the murmured voices, the warmth of the kitchen fire. Sara hands me a metal cup full of coffee. It nearly burns my chilled hands. I let the steam bathe my face. We talk softly of our trip home. She and her family can give me a ride as far as Guadalajara.

Our quiet conversation is interrupted by the deep, accented voice of Alejandro. “Lorena.” He puts a firm hand on my shoulder. The morning mist pearls on his silvery black hair pulled back in a braid. With a nod to him, Sara walks away to help her husband finish packing their car. Alejandro looks me in the eye. “There’s a guy who wants to take one of the vehicles that has been donated to the Journey back to the States. It isn’t in the best of shape.” He points to a blue Jeep Cherokee rusting into the earth. “He doesn’t know any Spanish. It would be best if someone could accompany him.”

Sara’s husband calls to me that they are almost ready to go. I wipe a rain-dampened strand of hair back into its place. “It’ll have to cross at Juárez, no?” I ask the shaman.

He is beckoning to a long-haired man, waving his hand down at the wrist as Latin Americans do. “Yes, to go through customs there. The Journey as to prove all the vehicles brought into the country return – or else the bond on them will be lost.”

Ciudad Juárez is on the other side of the Río Bravo from El Paso. “That’s a damn long ways from Austin. It’ll cost me a bundle to get home from there.”

“No, he’ll pay for the gas,” Alejandro says as the man approaches. Yes, an obvious gringo, down to the grin and ratty cowboy hat. “Isn’t that right – uh, what’s your name?”

“Michael.” His grin grows. H pushes his hat back. His dishwater-blond hair is thinning at the temples.

“She’ll go with you, Michael. You pay for the gas, okay?”

Ay, Alejandro once more is presenting me with a new adventure. What can I say? This Michael is a stranger in a strange land – and Alejandro is calling me into service for the Journey. I feel I cannot refuse his request.

“Lorena,” Sara calls. “Tenemos que irnos. We’ve gotta go. Are you coming?”

I look quickly over to her. Alejandro crosses his arms and raises a brow. I toss the last of the coffee toward the fire. Her car horn blows. I shake my head and wave them on. They leave in a spin of loose stones.

Alejandro leads me over to a tailgate where several others are studying a map. We’ll take Highway 57 through Querétaro to San Luis Potosí. From there, 49 goes to Fresnillo and El Paso. We’ll convoy with four others Juárez.

= = = = = = =

Shouts and slamming doors. This convoy is about to roll.

Oyen, ¿hay lugar?

No, no hay. Tal con ellos. Tienen un carro grande.

Two Mexican shamans stroll towards our Cherokee. One is tall and thin, the other portly. Their bundles-in-hand bump against their legs. “Perdone, ¿pero podemos viajar con ustedes?

Michael calls over to me, stowing things in the passenger seat. “What did they say?”

The mud oozes beneath my feet as I walk to the other side. “Muy buenas, señores. ¿Qué quieren?

I turn to Michael. “They want to know if they can hitch a ride with us. They’re going to Guadalajara. They say we can drop them in Querétaro.”

The back door slams once the last of their baggage is stowed. We are four in this tale of the adventure, Michael and one shaman in front, me and the other in back. Shouts bounce through the aging morning. “¡Vámanos!” “Hold on, I’m coming.” “Voy, voy

The starter whines with each turn of the key. “Damn,” Michal mutters, “this damn engine.”

“You want me to give it a try?” I lean over the back of the front seat.

“No, it’s a pretty sticky car. Ah, there it goes.” The motor spews bluish smoke into the low-cloud day.

“Well, I can help drive later on, if you need. It’s an automatic, no?” I offer.

“Yeah,” he says looking over his shoulder to me, grinning. “But it’s a bear to drive ‘cuz it always wants to conk out. Gotta drive it two-footed.” He revs the engine, his other foot on the brake.

¡Vámanos!” The first car of our convoy leaves the camp, its passengers leaning out the windows. “¡Adios!

“Well, here goes.” Michael shifts into drive and joins the line of vehicles heading out.

Thump, thump, thump – “¡Pare!

“What the heck!” Michael suddenly brakes. The engine moans in deathly tones.

I lean out my window. It’s Alejandro pounding on our fender.

¿Qué hay?

A stocky woman runs up. Her brown hair brushes her shoulders. “Can I catch a ride with you?” He English is accented.

A second car has pulled out of the site. “Sure, but get in fast,” Michael tells her. The shaman from the passenger seat throws her knapsack in back and sits with me. She gets in front.

We join our place in the departing convoy, hitting bottom as we leave the ruins on the high mountain plateau of the Valley of Mexico. A creak of springs, the crush of rocky desert beneath worn tires. The humph of an old motor hissing steam into the dry air. The cru-u-unch of the underside as we sway precariously over a rather large stone.

And here we are – Michael from Philadelphia and I – with our passengers: two Mexican shamans from Jalisco State, one named Jesús and the other with a Nahuatl name that translates to something like “Jaguar Breath,” and Nadia from Slovenia. Michael and Nadia speak no Spanish; Jesús and Jaguar Breath, no English.

= = = = = = =

The hours and the kilometers pass, and with each our engine coughs and sputters. The tar road sizzles beneath the nearly bald tires. Long ago the last member of the convoy passed from our sight. We are alone on this highway, north of Mexico City, heading north. The warming air of October blows through the Jeep’s open windows. Michal hums as he drives. We others stare out at the desert whizzing by. I nod off to the tires’ drone and the wind’s roar, sandwiched between Jesús and Jaguar Breath.

Clang. Rattle. Scra-a-atch. Boom. The car swerves a bit into the other lane as Michal tries to bring it to a stop on the narrow shoulder. The unmistakable flapping of a blown tire. But what is that metal-on-pavement scraping?

We all get out. The sun is beginning to sear he late-afternoon clouds.

“Well, the right back tire is gone,” Michael declares. We can see chunks of its rubber littering the shimmering highway.

Jesús crawls under the car from the passenger side. His voice echoes up, “Es la flecha. Se quebró.”

“Huh?” Michael asks me.

I shrug and pull myself beneath. Stones bite through my shirt. One end of the driveshaft lies fractured on the ground. “It’s the driveshaft. It broke.”

We settle into the stale heat inside the Jeep and share the bit of bread and fruit we have. The road is barren of traffic. We are someplace, but who knows where? A long walk back from the road is a chain-link fence that meanders for miles and miles. Razor wire atop captures the rays of the now-setting sun. Further back is a low, broad building. “A prison?” I ask the Mexicans. They shrug in unison.

With a pocketknife, Jesús peels an apple. The thin ribbons fall between his fine-boned fingers to the floor. He offers pieces to Jaguar Breath and me.

“So, you all are from Guadalajara?” I bite into the firm flesh.

Jaguar Breath spits a seed into his broad palm. “No, from little villages near there.”

“What do you do there?”

“Oh, I work on the railroad,” he responds.

“And I have a stall in the market with my wife.” Jesús passes another chunk to me.

We pass the time talking of their families, their children. Yes, Jesús already has grandchildren. The last tints of the sunset are fading into the grey of dusk.

A battered pickup pulls onto the shoulder ahead of us. I get out with Michael, the shamans following behind. Two men approach us. The older one introduces himself as a mechanic. With a flashlight, he examines the driveshaft. “Sure, I can fix it for you. It’ll be three-hundred-thousand pesos.”

Whew, one hundred dollars. We four go into a huddle.

“This man is not a Green Angel,” says Michael, referring to Mexican mechanics authorized to assist motorists stranded on the highways. “The guidebooks all say travelers should only trust Green Angels to help them out. How do we know …?” He beats his yankee sombrero against one leg. He wrinkles the thin skin of his forehead, sunburned to his hat-line.

“Look,” Jesús says, “we’ve been here now how long?”

Jaguar Breath kicks at a pebble. “Well, we could see if he can drop the price a bit, no? Three-hundred-thousand pesos is quite a bit.”

We approach the man again. We let Jaguar Breath and Jesús negotiate. “Well, since you are coming from ceremonies, I could … How about 120,000? Including the tire,” the mechanic offers.

= = = = = = =

Soon we are left alone again, the mechanic and his son gone with the shaft. The hours pass with only an occasional tire-sizzle, the sporadic whoosh of a truck going by. The stars begin to spin thickly through the sky.

“So, Nadia, where are you from?” Michael says, breaking the silence.

“Slovenia.” She reaches into a plastic bag of bread. “It feels great to have the freedom to travel. We couldn’t before, under the former government.”

Michael takes the bag she now offers him. “And where are you traveling to?”

“Oh, to Real de Catorce.” She breaks a piece of bread off and smears some peanut butter on it.

Real de Catorce. I’ve heard of the place from many other foreigners and from my readings about the indigenous peoples of Mexico. It’s an old mining community near San Luis Potosí. There is only one reason why she would be going. I translate what she said for Jesús and Jaguar Breath. Jesús grunts, “Why, Nadia?”

“Oh,” She wipes her knife off, “because I want to have a spiritual journey. I understand I can do so there.”

“That’s where the Huichol go on pilgrimage to have their peyote ceremonies, no?” I say in English and Spanish. The two shamans nod.

“Yes, and I’m so excited.”

Jesús shifts in his place, his elbow hitting my side as he crosses his arms across his lean chest. “Peyote is a sacred herb, a gift from the Creator,” I translate for him as he speaks. “It has its own ceremonies that must be followed.”

“Well of course I won’t just take it. I understand there are men there who will give it to you.”

“Who will sell it to you. But they do not follow the ceremonies.”

Nadia sighs a laugh. “What ceremonies?”

Jesús turns his hard eyes to her. “The Spirit of Peyote is strong. One must pay him respect or one will not have a good journey.”

I hear Nadia’s sigh again in the dark.

Uno tiene que cultivarlo de pequeño para cultivar una buena relación con él. Así lo muestra respecto,” I repeat to Nadia, forgetting to translate. It’s been so long a day. “One has to cultivate it from when it is small, in order to cultivate a good relationship with it. In this way one shows it respect.”

Jesús nods at me, then continues, “But before taking it, one must purify oneself. One must go away to a quiet place, and fast and meditate for two weeks …”

Nadia cringes. “What?”

“Then one must sing the songs to him, and say the prayers before asking for the journey. One must pay much respect to him, or one will not have a good journey and may get lost.”

The lights of a passing car silhouettes Nadia’s shaking head. “Ah, that’s all just superstition.”

“Actually not,” I say. “There are several herbs which are considered sacred by the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and they must be taken with great care and proper guidance.” Jesús nods. “Another one is called jimson weed, Datura. It, too, is very strong. Many years ago, I knew a guy who took some. He’s still in a mental hospital. They say his mind is just gone.”

“But I’ve known many people who have taken it without problems.”

“And what luck they are still here to say so,” counters the shaman, settling back in his seat.

Nadia turns away, peering into the darkness.

= = = = = = =

The mantle of midnight has spread over the desert. Someplace a bird calls. I pull my blue jean jacket closer around me as I sink beneath my sleeping bag, unzipped to accommodate the three of us in the backseat. Just as I begin to drift, standing on the edge of the Dreamworld, we hear the crunch of gravel in front of us. The battered pickup has returned. We hurriedly get out.

He’s got bad news. He has no electricity. He doesn’t know how long it’ll be out. Yes, he promises, he’ll get to work repairing our drive shaft as soon as he can. He’s sorry.

What can we do? We get back in; I take the seat behind Michael now. Fatigued by the days gone by, and by this day gone by, we settle into the night, hoping for some sleep.

= = = = = = =

I am drifting. I am … some place, I don’t know where. I am … half-awake, feeling a tongue licking the ridges of my right ear, teeth gently gnawing it. I shift under the sleeping bag, chilled by the air seeping through the car. I am … more awake, aware of a cat’s breath on my neck, his tongue, his teeth. I am … totally awake.

Híjole, cabrón,” I mutter sharply, shoving my elbow into Jaguar Breath’s meaty ribs. “Didn’t you say you have a wife and kids back home?” I pull the bag around me tighter, moving closer to the door.

And I drift back, standing again on the edge of the Dreamworld.

= = = = = = =

A crunch of gravel in front of us. The sky is beginning to lighten with pale magenta. The battered pickup has not yet returned. No, this is a black Mercedes. The shamans are already awake. I tap Michael on the shoulder. A uniformed man walks around to the rear passenger door. A well-dressed man gets out. We slowly tumble into the morning.

He is the owner of this factory. He waves out yonder, to that place a long way back from the road, where a low broad building hunkers into the earth and a chain-link fence meanders for miles and miles. Its razor wire is capturing the rays of the rising sun. His guards called him last night, reporting our presence. If we like, while we wait for the mechanic to return, we may come in to have some breakfast and to freshen up. Just tell the guards at the gate, and they’ll let us in.

He waves a short goodbye, the sun glinting off his gold watch. The chauffeur closes the car’s door. Nadia stumbles out of the Cherokee, her blanket tangled around her legs. “Who was that?” she asks as we watch them pull into a turnoff a few hundred meters up the highway. The earth billows behind them, settling momentarily as they await a gate’s opening. The Mercedes shines in the growing light.

While Nadia and Jaguar Breath are away at breakfast, the battered pickup returns. Yes, his electricity finally did come back on, early this morning. By the time our traveling companions return with some food for us, the mechanic and his son are packing away their tools. One-hundred-twenty-thousand pesos and a new tire later, we are ready to roll.

Once again the hours and the kilometers pass, and with each one our engine still coughs and sputters. The road sizzles. We are alone on this highway, north of who-knows-where, heading towards Querétaro, Fresnillo, El Paso. The warming air of the day blows through our open windows. Michael is humming. The rest of us stare out at the desert. I watch a roadrunner dart toward the shade of a cactus.

Clang. Rattle. Scra-a-atch. The car swerves a bit into the other lane as Michael brings it to a stop on the narrow shoulder. Metal on pavement. Could it be?

Jesús looks under the car from the passenger side. He stands up, wiping sand from his hands. “Pos, es la flecha, Se quebró.”

“Huh?” Michael asks me.

I look into Jesus’ brown eyes. “¿De verás?” A smile cracks his face. He shrugs and turns away to Jaguar Breath. “Uh, Michael,” I wince, “it’s the drive shaft.”

Jaguar Breath crawls beneath and shoves the shaft out one side. “It must have just fallen off,” I translate. “It appears not to have been the right size.”

“Shit.” Michael kicks the side of the vehicle. A chunk of rust falls to the ground. The customary hissing from under the hood begins erupting into a geyser. Michael throws his hat onto the ground. “Damn piece of shit. I should never have offered to take this back. I should have listened. It’s worthless.”

= = = = = = =

We share the last remnants of bread we have. The road is barren of traffic. We are someplace, I don’t know where. There are no signs, no markings of where we are. Just endless desert stretching to either horizon, speckled now and again with nopales and frail trees. The sun moves higher into today’s clear sky, its white light glaring off the blacktop. Nadia shakes a now-dry water bottle.

A battered pickup truck pulls onto the shoulder ahead of us. No, this is a different battered pickup truck. The shamans get out of our Jeep, with Michael and me following behind. Two men approach us. The older one introduces himself as a mechanic. He looks at the drive shaft lying on the shoulder of the road.

“Well, what do we do now?” asks Michael, rubbing his many-day-old stubble on his chin. We form a loose huddle.

Jesús shakes his head. Sweat pearls on his close-cropped, silvery-black hair. Jaguar Breath throws his hands to the sky.

“Look, why don’t we strike a deal with them?” I suggest.

And strike a deal we do: a free tow to their garage, a letter to the Mexican customs explaining why we had to abandon the vehicle, a free ride to the nearest town.

= = = = = = =

In the limp shade of a small copse of trees, I am rolling up Michael’s clothes, packing them into a large duffel bag. I promised Alejandro – and Michael – that I would make sure this gringo arrives safely in the States. I shake my head, single braid swaying. I cannot believe that this man decided to bring this much stuff with him for a three-month running journey. Before I began this task, I asked him if, indeed, all this were his. I suspected it might be castoffs of the other runners. Michael only shrugged and nodded, then turned away.

I look over to him. He is sitting in the open door of the passenger seat, looking at some papers.

“What you got there?” I ask.

“Some of my kids’ drawings.” He looks up at me as I approach him, shuffling them in his hand. “I guess I won’t be able to take them.”

“We’ll see what we can do.” I pull some more clothing out of the back of the Jeep Cherokee and resume packing the bag. “Look, here are some book bags. Perhaps you can sandwich them between some of those books you get, eh?”

He nods absently. His hat shades his grey eyes.

“So, Michael, how many kids do you have?” I push the contents of the duffel down harder, to get a few more things in.

“Two. They’re nine and seven. My wife … my ex-wife has custody of them.” He places the drawings in a large book about Teotihuacán. “We got divorced just about four months ago.” His flat voice is spiked with pain. “I figure I can try to start anew once I get to Las Cruces. Perhaps get a job teaching science.”

= = = = = = =

The silence of these afternoon hours drift on insect songs. Jaguar Breath and Jesús are sitting on some rocks under one tree. Nadia is by herself, reading.

All I can think is to do my best, salvage as much as possible for him. The duffel is full. Two big book bags, and now a third are packed tight. “I can help you carry some of this, but I don’t know how much more we can take on the buses and trains, Michael.”

I see the mechanic leave his brick-block office, a piece of paper in hand. Michael shuts the driver’s door quietly, and gives the keys to the mechanic. “Well, perhaps the tent and my sleeping bag, too?”

“Okay.” I look at the receipt the mechanic has written. Jesús and Jaguar Breath read over my shoulder: broken drive shaft; engine in bad repair; carburetor needs rebuilding; leaking radiator; threadbare tires. Is there anything else?

“No,” I tell him. “I guess we’ll be ready to go.”

“The man motions to his sons to load our stuff into the back of his pickup. Nadia climbs up and sits on a wheel well.

I see Michael looking at the stuff we have to leave behind. “Are you sure there’s nothing else you want? We can find a way …”

“No, it’s okay. You all can have it,” he waves to the several coolers, the milk crate of books, the god-knows-what-else piled to one side. Jaguar Breath grabs one of the ice chests and tosses it in the back as he gets in.

= = = = = = =

Hours ago that battered pickup abandoned us at the small bus office in San Juan del Río. Together, we five – Jesús, Jaguar Breath, Nadia, Michael and I – caught a bus for here, Querétaro. The shamans assured us they’d be fine, and blessed our journey. They caught the first bus for Guadalajara and home. Nadia left without a goodbye and headed for San Luis Potosí. The sun has long since set, and the chill of the night desert is beginning to creep into this steel and glass station.

Michael is looking at one of his children’s drawings. I prop my feet up on my knapsack and lean back in my orange plastic chair, marking my place in my journal with its red binding cord.

= = = = = = =

  1. All names have been changed to protect those involved.

– published in : Drive: Women’s True Stories from the Open Road (Seal Press, 2002)

NEW PUBLICATIONS : Poetic and Travel – September Equinox 2020

Indeed, my poetry and travel writing continue to appear in journals and on websites around the world – in Spain, the UK, the US, Ireland and Nigeria.

In the realm of travel narrative – I have been continuing to examine the topic of how post COVID-19 travel will be and proposing different kinds of adventures we can embark on!

Spend this September equinox browsing through the list (with links) below, poetically journeying to Chile’s Patagonia, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina’s Patagonia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Guatemala, the Galápagos Islands, Buenos Aires … and lands within & beyond …

…. and until we next meet …..

Safe Journeys!

Quito, Ecuador, Panecillo, Virgin

The wingéd Virgin (Pachamama) atop Yavirac – a.k.a. El Panecillo – the subject of one of my freshly pressed poems! photo © Lorraine Caputo

NEW LITERARY EXPRESSIONS

“Trilogía” in Bajo Otros Cielos (España/Spain) (June 2020)

“Aztec Phoenix,” “Sacred,” “Narihualá,” “Chan Chan” and “Templo de los Jaguares” in The Writer’s Café Magazine – Can You Dig It? (Ruins) (UK) (Issue 19, June 2020)

“At Blue Beach” and “Sounds of Silence” in Crêpe & Penn (Issue 8)

“Cueva de las Manos” in Silver Birch Press – Landmarks series (3 July 2020)

“Watchtower” and “Pincers” in Cavalcade of Stars (6 July 2020)

“Hushed Dreams;” “Caribbean Nocturne,” “On a Full Moon Night” and “Pastors” in The Blue Nib (Ireland) (23 July 2020)

“At the Water’s Edge” and “New Moon (Galapagos)” in Verse-Virtual (August 2020)

Chile Chico,” “Salango” and “Yaviracin Voices on the Wind – Voices on History (volume 82, August 2020)

“Anochecer Bogotano” in Bajo Otros Cielos (España/Spain) (August 2020)

“Time to Feast” in The Raconteur Review (August 2020)

“Denouncing the Violence of the Past” in Halfway Down the Stairs (September 2020)

“Mexican Murals – Puerto Escondido” and “These Hands” in Praxis Magazine (Nigeria) (4 September 2020)

“León” in Poetry & Places (4 September 2020)

“When We Grew Up,” “Spring Storms” and “Lanterns” in The BeZine (Volume 7, Issue 4 – September 2020)

“Recoleta” in Poetry & Places (17 September 2020)

Peru, Zorritos, beach, playa, ocean, sea

This beach in northern Peru is a-callin’ my name for a post-pandemic escape. photo © Lorraine Caputo

NEW TRAVEL EXPRESSIONS

South America Buses

South America’s Beaches: Escape the Pandemic Blues

Latin Bus

Bicycling in South America: A Travel Solution in the Pandemic Era

Now Available! ¡Disponible Ahora!

Me voy de casa (Wanderful Quito / Yo Viajo Sola, 2020) — colaboradora

Todo lo necesario para planificar un viaje, y para ayudarnos durante la travesía – más consejos de viajeras (¡incluyendo de mí!).

¡El regalo perfecto para las viajeras que conozcas!

guía, viajes, mujeres, travel, guide, women

Me voy de casa (Wanderful Quito / Yo Viajo Sola, 2020)

If you are in need of an article for your publication or website, a translation – or your dissertation, book or article proofread / edited, please feel free to contact me. I am also available to participate in literary events.