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.

PATRONS OF FISHERMEN : San Pedro and San Pablo

In Latin America, June is a big festival month. Four holidays are celebrated: the feast day of San Antonio (Saint Anthony of Padua, 13 June), Inti Raymi (an Andean festival at about the time of the June solstice), the feast day of San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist, 24 June) and the feast day of San Pedro y San Pablo (Saints Peter and Paul, 29 June).

San Pedro and San Pablo are the patron saint of fishermen. In many countries (including Mexico, Paraguay and Colombia), 29 – 30 June are national holidays.

In coastal towns throughout Latin America, these saints are being fêted. The saints are paraded around the harbor in flower-festooned boats, followed by special masses. They are petitioned for plentiful fishing and – in some areas – rain. Bands, traditional dances and other cultural events accentuate the scene. Other activities may include special tours of the coast and gastronomic fairs.

Surprisingly, San Pedro and San Pablo are also saluted in highland villages, such as Neiva and Jongivito in Colombia, and Punín in Ecuador. In some areas, the feast day of Saint John the Baptist (24 June) merges with that of Peter and Paul.

One year, I was in Arica for the feast days of San Pedro and San Pablo. Let’s take a look at how it is celebrated there – as well as shrines to the fishermen’s saints in other Latin American villages. Let’s take a look at how they celebrate it in that northern Chilean port city.

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Who Were Peter and Paul?

You might be wondering who San Pedro (Saint Peter) and San Pablo (Saint Paul) were – and why they have become associated with the fishing trade.

Saint Peter, one of the original disciples of Jesus, was a fisherman by trade. He was the founder of the Christian Church in Rome, and that city’s first bishop. He is also counted as the first pope of the Roman Catholic Church.

Saint Paul was born Saul of Tarsus. He never knew Jesus in person. He worked for the Roman Empire, in the persecution of Christians. (One of his most famous cases was the stoning of Saint Stephen.) Between jobs of persecution – legend states – he experienced a visit from the spirit of Jesus which led to his conversion. Saint Paul became a major proponent of Christianity, and much of the surviving New Testament is credited to his pen. He was beheaded for being a Christian on 29 June 67 AD, during the reign of Nero.

 

Where to Join the Saint Paul and Saint Peter Celebrations

There are many places in Latin America where you can join in on the dancing, boating and delicious food fêting these two saints. Almost any community on the coast – whether of the Caribbean Sea, or the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean – will have celebrations. But throughout the Andes, you’ll also find mountain villages honoring these saints, in hopes of rains for the season’s crops.

Below are just some of the places where you can put on your itinerary.

Safe Journeys!

 

Festival, fiesta, Saint Paul, San Pablo, Saint Peter, San Pedro, fishermen

Many fishing villages have shrines to Saint Peter (San Pedro). The shrine in Pisagua (Chile) is near the fishermen’s wharf. photo © Lorraine Caputo

 

Mexico

  • San Pablo del Monte (Tlaxcala)
  • San Pedro y San Pablo Ayutla, and San Pablo Villa de Mitla (Oaxaca)
  • Tzimol (Chiapas)

 

Guatemala

  • Almolonga (Quetzaltenango)
  • Chuarrancho, San Pedro Sacatepéquez (Guatemala)
  • San Pedro Carchá (Alta Verapaz)
  • San Pedro La Laguna (Solalá)
  • San Pedro Sacatepéquez (Sacatepéquez)
  • Yepocapa (Chimaltenango)

 

El Salvador

  • Caluco (Sonsonate)
  • Corinto, and Sensembra (Morazán)
  • San Pedro Masahuat, and San Pedro Nonualco (La Paz)
  • San Rafael Cedros, and San Pedro Perulapán (Cuscatlán)
  • Teotepeque (La Libertad)

 

Nicaragua

  • Cuidad Darío (Matagalpa)
  • Diría (Granada)
  • El Jícaro, and Mozonte (Nueva Segovia)
  • Jinotepe (Carazo)
  • Puerto Cabezas (RAAN)
  • San Pedro de Lóvago (Chantales)
  • San Pedro y San Pablo (Villanueva, Chinandega)

 

Costa Rica

  • Alajuela
  • Ciudad Buenos Aires de Puntarenas
  • León Cortés
  • Limón
  • Pococí
  • San José (San Pedro de Montes de Oca)
  • San Pablo (Heredia)
  • San Pedro de Poás
  • Turrubares
  • Upala

 

Venezuela

  • Guatire and Guarenas (Miranda State)

 

Colombia

  • Jongivito (Nariño)
  • Neiva (Huila)
  • San Pablo, Mahates (Bolívar)

 

Ecuador

  • Alausí (Chimborazo Province)
  • Crucita, Manta, Jaramijó, and Montecristi (Manabí)
  • Esmeraldas (Barrio El Panecillo) (Esmeraldas)
  • Checa, Licán, Cayambe, Pomasqui, Ayora, and Tabacundo (Pichincha)
  • La Magdalena (Bolívar)
  • Pimampiro, Cotacachi, and Cayambe (Imbabura)
  • Puerto Bolívar (El Oro Province)
  • San Pedro y San Pablo, Ayangue, and Santa Rosa (Santa Elena Province)

 

Peru

  • Chimbote (Huáraz)
  • Chorrillos and Callao (Lima)
  • Ilo (Moquegua)
  • Ichu (Puno)
  • San Pedro de Cajas (Tarma)

 

Chile

  • Arica (Región XV Arica y Parinacota)
  • Pisagua (Región I Tarapacá)
  • Puerto Cisnes (Región XI Aysén)
  • Valparaíso (Región V Valparaíso)

 

Argentina

  • Tucumán (Tucumán)
  • Corrientes (Corrientes)

 

Festival, fiesta, Saint Paul, San Pablo, Saint Peter, San Pedro, fishermen

The shrine to San Pedro in Puerto Cisnes, in southern Chile. photo © Lorraine Caputo

 

 

 

 

 

NEW PUBLICATIONS : Poetic and Travel – June Solstice 2020

Indeed, my poetry and travel writing continue to appear in journals and on websites around the world – in Ecuador, the Czech Republic, Liberia, and the United States. As well – and quite exciting! – one of my poems has been translated into and published in Chinese!

As well, I have done poetry readings “in” Texas and the Galápagos Islands (from afar, as – like many of us – I have been in lock-down …)

In the realm of travel narrative – I have been examining the topic of how post COVID-19 travel will be.

 

Spend this June solstice browsing through the list (with links) below, poetically journeying to the Galápagos Islands, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, El Salvador, Venezuela, Uruguay, Colombia … and lands within & beyond …

…. and until we next meet …..

 

Safe Journeys!

 

poetry, amber, Argentina

A piece of amber I found on a Patagonian beach in Argentina – the inspiration for the poem “Beholding” which has now been translated to Chinese. photo © Lorraine Caputo

 

NEW LITERARY EXPRESSIONS

“Estas Nubes” in Revista Máquina Combinatoria (Ecuador) (Volumen 2, Nº 3, Marzo 2020)

“John the Baptist” in Nixes Mate (Issue 15, Spring 2020)

“Return of the Three O’Clock Rains” in New Feathers Anthology (Spring 2020)

 

“Isla de Ometepe” and “Siete Calles” in Doubleback Review (Issue 2:1, April 2020)

“Beholding the Entombed” (in English and Chinese) in Poetry Hall (Issue 7, April 2020)

“Misted Awakening” and “A Quiteño Sketch” in Fragmented Voices (UK-Czech Republic) (22 April 2020)

“The Rainy Season Has Arrived,” “Sonata for a Late Afternoon” and “On the Shore” in Muddy River Poetry Review (Spring 2020)

“Missa Cantata” and “In This Obscurity” in Dreams Walking (Issue 1, April 2020)

 

“Through the Cordillera Blanca” in Dragonfly (Spring 2020)

“Sandlot Samurai” in Freshwater Literary Journal (May 2020)

“Serenata del paisaje” in Revista Máquina Combinatoria (Ecuador) (Volumen 2, Nº 5, Mayo 2020)

“Islands in the Stream” in Canyon Voices (Spring 2020)

“Ajar to the Night” and “As Our Train” in Otherwise Engaged Literature and Arts Journal (Volume Five, 2020)

 

Where Shall We” and “Amazon Dream” in Trouvaille Review (1 June 2020)

“Jungle Rains,” “Cinnamon Moon,” and “On This Cloud-Shadowed Land” in The Ducor Review (Liberia) (8 June 2020)

“Alone” in Birdsong Journal (18 June 2020)

“Thunder” in Flora Fiction Literary Magazine (Volume 1, Issue 2, Summer 2020)

 

poetry, festival, Galapagos, Ecuador

The First Galápagos International Poetry Festival, in which I participated.

 

And – something special – several virtual poetry readings!

(Click on the title to listen to the readings.)

 

BLAST YOUR OWN BREATH – National Poetry Month edition – April 11, 2020 (pt. 2 of 4)

Hosted by Tammy Gómez

Featuring: Austin Caraway, Lorraine Caputo, Alexandra Corinth, and Rita Vigil.

 

GALÁPAGOS INTERNATIONAL POETRY FESTIVAL11-13 June 2020

Organized by Paola Zambrano and Galápagos Contra Corriente

 

Peru, beach, post-pandemic, travel, Covid-19

Where will you be going after the pandemic? I dream of the beach – once the borders reopen, perhaps I’ll head for this piece of paradise in northern Peru … photo © Lorraine Caputo

 

NEW TRAVEL EXPRESSIONS

 

            Colombia Schedules

Lodging in South America | What to Expect As Countries Reopen (June 2020)

 

            Latin Bus

Post-Pandemic Travel | New Rules (and New Thinking) for the Road

 

 

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.

WELL-LAID PLANS

The rail lines between Durango and Tepehuanes (to the northwest), and to Felipe Pescador and Fresnillo (to the southeast). photo Lorraine Caputo

 

Over a decade earlier, I had fallen in love with train travel. Whenever I could, wherever I was in the Americas, I would travel by train. The trips inspired so much poetry and narratives. I set myself the goal of taking at least one train in each country, from Alaska and the Patagonia.

 

In 1996, the trains in Mexico were privatized. I had caught the last train from Durango to Tepehuanes. In that village I spent several weeks, planning my route in search of trains. But those plans, well …

 


 

9 November 1997 (1 month, 8 days since privatization)
Fresnillo, Edo. de Zacatecas

Oh, so much for well-laid plans.

I’d spent three weeks in Tepehuanes.  I was going to take a bus to Durango (as there was no more passenger train service), and from there catch a train to Felipe Pescador.  In that village where no road arrives, I could catch the south-bound Juárez train for Mexico City.

One afternoon I went down to the station in Tepehuanes.  The cargo train had arrived.  It was 7 November.

“Do you know what day this is?” they asked me.  “National Railroad Day.  There used to be a band greeting us here, celebrations along every line.  But not this year.  Just silence.”

“And how is it now without passengers on this train?”  The late afternoon sun through the trees mosaicked on the blue locomotives.

Triste.  Sad.  And now they’ve ended the train from Durango to Felipe Pescador.”

My mouth dropped open.  “Since when?”

“Since a few days ago.  And the new owners did it without notice.”

Well, so much for well-laid plans.

I must go to Fresnillo to catch that south-bound train.

 

I arrive at the pink-trimmed stone-block station of Fresnillo. The early afternoon sun glares off the rails. Many families sit under the shade of an ancient eucalyptus tree. A girl and her two younger brothers look for round stones along the tracks. They fill a green bottle with them.

I walk off to explore this abandoned station. The black lettering on white signs is faded. There’s the  station chief’s office ticket window, the waiting salon, the telegraph office. Black metal bars cage the raggedly broken window panes. Rocks within the empty rooms testify to their destruction. Graffiti on the walls of these spaces that smell of stale urine. The tiled floors are heavy with dirt, trash, fragments of glass.

The doors of the old bodega have been rammed in. Now the entrances are guarded by a grating made of iron rails. The heavy wood and glass counter is still there. Shelves behind it hold the heat of this late afternoon. Many old posters are plastered on the walls.

THE RAILROAD IS THE NERVE
OF THE INDUSTRIAL MEXICAN REVOLUTION

In the far reaches to the South appears the light of a locomotive against the dull of distant mountains. The mother calls to her children to put aside their rounded stones, “Apúrate.  Hurry up,” she says to the youngest. “Don’t you want to come see papá?”

 

The shiny and clean primera especial cars pull up. Water still drips from the window sills. Dark eyes peer from between the venetian blinds.

The porters step out in their impeccable uniforms to help these northward journeyers aboard. “The south-bound should pass at ’bout 4:30,” the conductor calls out as his train leaves. And within a few, it disappears towards that Juárez horizon.

 

All that is left are us five: a mother, her not-quite-four-year-old son and the grandparents – and I, with my eyebrow still raised at the sight of that perfect train.

“Now,” the grandfather tells me, “there is only one class, la clase única, and all the trains in and out of the City are like that one that just passed.”

Little Ernesto picks up the bottle the other children left behind. It rattles in his small hand. He begins his hunt for more rounded rocks.

 

Not quite 3 p.m. On that northern horizon, we see a light. It couldn’t be ours, could it?

Three locomotives, with a caboose zoom by, fluttering up track-side trash.

 

THE DANCE OF THE FREIGHT TRAINS

Those three lone engines switch
off to a side track
on the other side
of the station

 

From the north a freight train approaches
For minute upon long minute
rumbling by its
3 locomotives
15 cars
3 more locomotives
63 cars
Nacional de México
Cotton Belt     Santa Fe     Southern Pacific
Union Pacific     Western Pacific
and, finally, the yellow caboose

 

To the south I see
the exhaust plumes
a second freight train
It stops on the second track
waiting for the first to pass
After that long while
it backs up and
switches to the third track
There it waits, waiting . . . .

 

A sudden gust of wind scurries
dried leaves and litter by our faces
The three lone engines hum deeply
on the other side of this
abandoned station
Children walk up that platform
and pause beneath
the engineer’s window
He hands them each a
pack of chicles
He tells Grandfather
our train should
arrive about 6:30

 

A third cargo train comes
out of the north
clanging its bells
I sit on this side of the platform
counting off the cars
2 locomotives
23, 24 cars
The twenty-fifth one
arrives before me
Brakes hiss
the train stops
Its locomotives blacken
the blue afternoon

 

The third train pulls apart
to allow those three lone engines
to join its chain

 

and after the link is made
this railbox in front of me
eases back
The cars creak a bit before
the brakes release with a clank

 

I resume my tally
2 locomotives
plus 3 more
67 cars
Nacional de México
Conrail     Southern
Southern Pacific     Norfolk Southern     Chessie
Norfolk and Western     CP Rail     Union Pacific
Canadien National     Grand Trunk Western
A multi-color of dented and rusting
freighters and hoppers
blacks and greys and light blues
bright yellows and browns and greens
and, of course, at last
the caboose

 

The second train has begun
to slip behind this
nearer third

 

As each one  passes before him
a young boy throws rocks
They clash against
the  metal sides

 

I begin to count off
as many cars of the
second as I can from
the distance
2 locomotives
perhaps 57 cars
mostly Nacional de México
scattered with a few
Cotton Belt     Norfolk Southern     Southern
—and one marked
EXCLUSIVE USE OF PROCTOR and GAMBLE
I wave at the worker
hanging off that caboose
He motions me in his
north-ward direction
I shake my head

 

and I watch those two trains
fade into their horizons

 

The sun has burned away the shade of the station and its tree. The family moves off in search of refuge from its raw light.

Four teenagers hang out behind the station, coolly smoking cigarettes and drinking pulque. They chase away the younger boys and continue on with their talk of tough exploits peppered with güeys. As each bottle is emptied, they throw it towards the old switching tower, its flag now missing. Rough-housing each other, shoves, smacks on rears, punches on upper arms.

After a while, they walk back to town where they can’t be these young toughs.

 

As the sun lowers, the bird song begins in the old eucalyptus tree. Shadows fall long, deep. A pink house across the tracks catches the last light. For a short while the dusty road leading to town is bathed in gold. The colors of twilight palely appear on the eastern horizon, blue into purple into rose. The moon, now grown more than half-full, brightens in the gathering darkness. A rat runs out of the empty station and along the silent rails.

The night deepens with its sprinkling of stars. We wait here, now 30 or so, in the light of that moon, for the south-bound train.

On his jambox a young man plays Creedence Clearwater. Then the sound of Mexican rock politicizes our vigil on this platform.

Every eye is trained on that northern horizon. Children fall asleep wrapped in blankets against the growing cold. “A light, a light,” someone will announce. People grab their bags. It is only another car crossing the tracks.

The moon casts the shadow of the eucalyptus, throwing the platform into darkness, robbing us of her light.

The hours pass and pass. It is now well after eight. Time continues to slip away.

Some people are about to leave. One of them glances over her shoulder. “Here it comes,” she yells. I hear a very faint rumble.

On that distant horizon, a glare floods it. We watch that light behind those trees for the longest time. It seems to get no nearer. It disappears around bends.

Then into the straight-away towards this station. Blinding light blinding us.

The train pulls into view. A few passengers turn away dejected. “It’s a cargo train.” “No”—others say—“the passenger cars are behind.” And the chase begins, down the platform, past the station, to where the blue cars await.

 

Once inside, a seat next to the window, I peel off my jean jacket and sweater. The heat is on. I dig my watch out of its pocket. It is almost nine-thirty.

 

A TICKET TO RIDE

An Affair Never-Ending -- Mexican rail map

A copy of the rail map the FFCC de México used to give away, with most of the rides I’d taken marked. © Lorraine Caputo

 

So much for making it on the evening train to Juárez. All the seats are sold already. The woman at the ticket window says, though, that when the train comes in, we can ask the porters. We just have to wait until the train arrives at 5:20 p.m. and see.

A family who was also on the train from Durango decides to get a hotel room. Tomorrow morning they will return to the station, to buy tickets when they go on sale at eight.

Martin and I decide to try our luck. If we can’t get on tonight’s train, then we’ll overnight here. The station closes at night, so we would have to sleep out front. No problem. We each have sleeping bag. He even has a tent. We can pull watches until the line begins forming at four. I’ll even volunteer to pull the whole night’s watch.  But we’ll wait and see what happens.

And so we sit here, in the train station in Torreón, surrounded by my knapsack (upon which I rest my feet), and Martin’s gear: a sleeping bag and tent (which I carry)—plus two large book bags, a mail sack and a shoulder bag. Our mobility definitely is limited.

trains, Mexico, travelogue

Our sojourn: from Durango to Torreón, to Ciudad Juárez on the Mexico-U.S. border. photo © Lorraine Caputo

 

I’d met Martin north of Mexico City at an indigenous gathering. I agreed to be his escort north to the border at Ciudad Juárez, on the condition we go to Durango. For over a year that Bob Dylan song had been going through my head—and I wanted to send a postcard to Sarah. But Martin’s vehicle gave up the ghost: broken drive shaft, leaking radiator, a carburetor needing to be rebuilt and Spirit knows what else. We abandoned it at a mechanic’s garage.

I salvaged what I could of his belongings, spending an hour field-packing everything I could get into these bags. Our other passengers—two curanderos from Jalisco and a woman from Slovenia—parted ways. And I continued north with Martin.

I pass the time, my feet propped up, writing in this journal. I may snuggle down for a bit for a nap. I’ll need it if we have to camp out front all night. But Martin keeps interrupting me—and he says I’m a talker!

Well, here he comes again, carrying a piece of cardboard in his hand. I wonder what he wants. I saw him before, sitting in the row of seats behind me, dictionary in hand. He now stands before me, his glasses catching the sunlight filtering in through the roof eaves. He flashes his goofy smile, his thin skin wrinkling.

“What do you think?” He holds up a neatly printed sign: Quiero comprar dos boletos a Ciudad Juárez.

“Well, you got the grammar right. But, Martin, I don’t think it’s necessary. As I explained before, when the train comes in, we can ask the porters. I’ve seen it done before. Why don’t you just sit down and relax? Take a nap, eh?”

“Well, it can’t hurt to try.” He walks off, strolling around the station with his sign. I shake my head and drift lightly off to sleep.

After a while, Martin comes walking back to me, a big smile on his face. Two railroad workers, one dressed in a black, kid-glove jacket, follow him. “Do you know Spanish,” one asks.

Martin nods and points to me. I wish I could wipe that silly grin off his face. “She speaks Spanish.”

The man begins explaining the whole system—again—of how when the train comes in and all that jazz.

“I know, sir. I already explained that to him. But …”

He turns to Martin. “Look, when the train comes in, let her handle it. Understand?” I translate for Martin, so he will understand.

After they leave, Martin sits two seats down, his stuff on the seat between us. “Oh, honey, he was just humoring you.” He smugly slumps in his chair and pulls his hat down, over his closed eyes.

Yea, right. Only Latinos are macho, right? And what about this boy from Phillie?

The train pulls in on time, at 5:20. The man at the platform gate is carefully checking everyone’s tickets. Martin and I sneak by when he isn’t looking, lugging all of Martin’s stuff.

Out the vestibule door, a porter stands, hanging onto one handrail. Already he is surrounded by a large group of people asking for tickets.

We walk up, Martin in front of me. The man looks over Martin’s blond head, to me. “What do you want?”

“Two tickets for Juárez.”

“Get on.”

We slip behind him. We waddle under the weight of our packs, finding a seat near the bathroom. We stow some below bags, others on the rack overhead. My pack is at my feet.

“Well,” says Martin, “we did manage to get seats after all. And all thanks to my sign.”

I won’t breathe a word—whatever he wants to believe. I just shake my head and look out the window.

Soon the train pulls away, into the dusk. The conductor comes along, collecting fares, issuing tickets. He looks at Martin sitting by the aisle, then ignores him. “Señorita, para dónde va?

Dos para Juárez, por favor, señor.

 

 

published in: Australian Latino Press