Thoughts Inspired by a Helen Frankenthaler Painting

I saw one of Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings a while back,  and while I was captured by the painting itself, it was its history that inspired this contemplation.   There’s a lot of yellow paint draped over a large, untreated canvas, the inconsistency of the texture causing the paint to bleed in volatile ways.  A subtle blue perimeter and a column of orange covered the side and bottom edges.  The painting is dated ’67-’76.  Apparently it hung in her studio, unreleased to the world, for ten years because she never felt like it was complete.  Finally, in 1976 she added an imperfect rectangle of red at the top of the ten-foot canvass.  This, she felt, completed her work.  At first glance, it seems curious that something so small and peripheral could give her such a feeling of fulfillment and completion with regards to the painting, but if you step back ten feet from the artwork, blot out the red portion with your hand, you immediately recognize its significance and see how something so small and seemingly unrelated to the core of the painting can play such a vital role in pulling all the shades together and giving the painting meaning.

It reminds me of the little stories we like to tell over and over as if they’ve gone into syndication.  There’s usually nothing too sexy about these stories, but we love to tell them much more than people like to listen to them.  What makes these stories especially interesting (and sometimes irritating) is the way people try to find any opening to insert them into conversation.  For example, I have a friend who’s a tennis coach who loves to tell the story of the day he accidentally explained something backwards to one of his students and how that student completely bought into it and said it was the best advice they’d ever received.  If that coach and I were talking about education in an America, he’d tell the story.  If we talked about politicians who flip-flopped, he’d tell the story.  If we talked about women, he’d tell the story.  Now that I reflect back, I realize there was a reason he told the story.  Our interactions with others and the way we perceive them are the nuts and bolts of our lives.  Moments that may seem insignificant are often the ones that provide the most clarity and insight into a person’s life.  It’s easy to dismiss these side stories as peripheral and meaningless, but what is in between the lines or what peeks over the top of the canvass are often more significant than what is easier to see.  What is also true is that these stories are often allegorical.  There is a reason we speak in allegory.  It’s the reason we have religion.  It penetrates a person’s essence in a way that mundane facts and details cannot.  It’s the red rectangle that punctuates the story of our life.

Christmas Eve in Montevideo

Christmas Eve in Montevideo.  Early in the day there was a raucous party downtown different from any Christmas Eve celebration I have ever seen.  University students took to the streets of the historic district.  Nearly every store and restaurant was closed, but a roar of voices floated down the streets like drifting smoke.  As I walked towards the grassy plaza, I passed a couple of staggering women sharing a bottle of liquor.  They were immediately swept up by a group of shirtless, drum-banging men skipping in rhythm to their own beat.  It was hard not to get captured by the energy of the crowd.  I climbed a stone wall and looked down into a complete mix of faces.  My eyes stopped at every blonde head of hair I passed looking for Maria.  Did Maria mention Montevideo?  Maybe not.  But maybe Punta del Este for New Year’s.

A young woman with curly black hair and green eyes looked up at me and smiled.  She swayed with the music, causing her lime green skirt to flutter like a blowing leaf.  She reached up and handed me a bottle of rum.  I took it and swallowed a mouthful that my body was not yet ready for.  I coughed into my shoulder as I handed the bottle back.  Hesitant to join the crowd in Montevideo, I sought refuge in the iglesia matriz, an ornate church with shiny marble floors and an expansive nave, but oddly silent and empty on Christmas Eve.  I was alone with the ornate tomb of Mariano Soler, the first archbishop of Montevideo.  Was he really inside?  I moved closer touching the marble exterior with my fingers.  I sensed someone behind me and spun around.

“You are too early,” said a man wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt and holding a mop.  Of course.  Everyone outside would need time to sober up before they attended Christmas mass.

I walked the twenty kilometers to my aunt’s house along the beaches of the Rio Plata in Montevideo.  The waves lapped at my feet as I walked barefooted carrying my sandals in my hand (by the way, sandals are not meant for walking great distances as my blisters proved).  Along the Ramba, the main pedestrian stretch, men and women jogged or rode bicycles.  On the beaches, fathers playfully chased their children into the harmless waters.  Sailboats drifted across the horizon.

It’s a young city, a romantic city.  The sun was setting and people of all ages sat on benches, sipping mate, which they brought in thermoses, patiently waiting for the sun to dip gently into the river.  A raspy voice sang out from above, I turned around and searched the overlooking hill for the source.  It came from an old man sitting on the grassy hill.  He was sitting alone with a cup of mate in his hand.

Later that night I sat outside in the dark along the sidewalk of a neighborhood listening to a cascade of whistles overhead.  The Christmas Eve skies in Montevideo are illuminated with  fireworks filling the sky in a dazzling display of colors.  It’s different from the well-synchronized shows I’ve seen in the United States.  In Montevideo, color touched every piece of space in all directions.  There is something about light poking through darkness that beckons you to come closer.

Contrast that with complete darkness.  There is something perfectly laconic about blackness, but this is deceiving because even absent the myriad of tones, it arrives in subtle gestures and forms.  There is the blackness of mystery, and within this is the bleakness of fear intertwined with aspirations of hope.  There is the blackness of storms before they’re ripped apart by lightning.  There is the blackness of an abandoned basement defined only by the drips of a persistent leak.  There is the blackness in the emptiness between planets and stars, and there is the blackness of the density beneath the jungle canopy.  The blackness of a cave.  It is permanent.  Persistent.

A Poem About Tango

Tango Dancers
Tango Dancers in Buenos Aires


It begins with a gaze

then a clasp

a lean forward

a frame nearly collapsed

in one sweeping step

freedom and surrender

at once

violence

passion

grace

precision

greed

a buried face

legs intertwined until two

become one

ending with

love in déjà vu

The Seduction of Buenos Aires

I returned to Buenos Aires from Iguazú and spent the day wandering around Buenos Aires.  I thought I would need more days in Buenos Aires, but I’ve seen what I wanted to see, or at least what I’ve already sort of visited through travel books, travel shows on TV, and magazines: the obelisk, the pink palace, Evita’s tomb, theaters, and countless statues and monumentsI went to the requisite tango show last night that tore through my budget.   I don’t need to continue down these busy streets to confirm the veracity of these images.  What would be cheaper and more enlightening, I supposed, would be to journey down the quiet streets vacant of tourists and pedestrians but filled with colorful histories and character.  Instead, I splurged.  Again.

I needed to buy a Christmas gift to take to Aunt Belén in Montevideo but was quickly approaching the limit on my credit card, so I strolled the streets looking for something simple—perhaps some chocolates, a decorative box, or a picture frame.  I made the mistake of turning onto Libertad Street.  Block after block were filled with jewelry stores.  I wasn’t interested in jewelry but the sheer number of these stores prompted me to conduct an informal count.  They all looked the same, and I wondered how anyone chooses one over another.  No one store is full of customers, yet no one is empty, either.  I had reached fifty-two before losing count.  Then I stepped into a side market that was really just a gutted building filled with a maze of yet more jewelry counters.  With little airflow in the stifling building, I wandered aimlessly around the perimeter before gravitating to a booth with a fan.

The sheer quantity of gold made me think of her and the time we spent together in the jungle.  I wonder how she ever made it.  Then, fate put this particular necklace under my eyes: a delicate chain with a golden, bird-shaped charm studded with tiny emeralds.  I felt I had to buy this.  For her.  But the price!  The equivalent of five hundred dollars!  Five hundred more than I could afford.  But when you want something so bad, you find a way to rationally conclude you should have it.  This was the end of my trip.  Soon I’d be back at home earning money once again.  Surely it’s permissible to splurge when it’s not on yourself.  Buenos Aires is famous for its reasonably priced, quality jewelry—when would I be back here again?  I was actually saving money on presents this year since I wasn’t in the United States and not forced to buy presents for every family member and friend of the family.  Anyway, what is five hundred dollars in the grand scheme of life?  It wasn’t like I was in the habit of buying exquisite things.  A lump formed in my throat as the bald man behind the counter swiped my credit card, and I swallowed it when the receipt began to print.

Iguazu

The popular tale at Iguazú is a history lesson about the guides who used to paddle their tour groups to the top edge of the falls, and then paddle against the current while their clients peered over the edge.  This was a common practice until the day one guide couldn’t handle the current and the entire group of European tourists plummeted over the edge.  After the deaths of those tourists, the government banned such trips.

We hear so many stories like these that we sometimes forget their sources.  They’ve gotten so repetitive that if you start one of them, many people will stop you mid-sentence and say, “Yeah, I’ve read that in Lonely Planet too.”

The waterfalls at Iguazú were spectacular.  If it wasn’t for the paved paths and the slow Disney-styled train-ride with Ennio Morricone’s Mission music in the background, I think I would have enjoyed the experience even more.  Nevertheless, no photograph or video can capture the feeling of being there—hearing the thunderous roar, following the countless streaks of white through plumes of mist, or feeling the refreshing droplets accumulate on your forehead.  I followed the hoards of tourists across the bridges that led to a point at the top of the Devil’s Throat.  From there it looked as if the world simply dropped off into an unknown abyss.

For a hundred pesos I took a boat ride to the base of the falls.  Of course we didn’t go directly underneath the falls, but we were close enough to be blanketed by a solid white wall of mist.  I had never been surrounded by pure whiteness before.  It is difficult to measure the canvassing power of water.

As I sat by the pool at the hostel, I met myself in other travelers who are in South America without much real purpose at all.  Some are on a rambling journey around the globe.  Few have a set itinerary.  We find ourselves standing on deserted roads waiting for the next bus or pickup truck to roll by and take us to God knows where.  Where our lives intersect we swap stories.

Remembering Quito

Before coming to Ecuador in late August, I quit my job, ended a passionless relationship, and cashed out three garbage bags full of change I’d accumulated over the years.  I had a vague plan of enrolling in a crash course in Spanish at the Universidad Católica, the same university my mom had attended many years before.  When I arrived in Quito, my cousin Ana was waiting for me at the airport, and even after ten years apart, I instantly recognized her round eyes and giant smile as I exited baggage claim.  She had graciously prepared a guest room for me, and on the ride back to her house, she gave me updates on our other relatives.  I was especially interested in hearing about Aunt Belén, a writer herself who was dealing with lung cancer.

“She is in Montevideo,” was all that my cousin had to say about our aunt.

Like many of the houses in Quito, my cousin’s was built with an emphasis on security rather than aesthetics.  The walls surrounding the property were topped with jagged glass from broken beer bottles, and except for the reinforced metal garage and front door, a solid brick wall formed the façade of the house.  There were no windows on the ground floor, and iron bars covered all the windows on the upper levels.  My room was adjacent to the garage on the first floor, and though I was welcome to ascend at any time to enter the main house, I often preferred to stay in my personal dungeon.  On nights when there were rolling blackouts, there would be total darkness.  The sound of the front door closing had the clamor of a jail cell slamming shut.  Outside on the other side of my bedroom wall was where the neighbor’s dogs slept, and every morning, well before the roosters awoke, they would announce themselves with vicious barking.

Some days, when my cousin wasn’t home, I’d go out onto her second floor balcony and stare out over Quito.  In the streets below, stooping old women with brown crackled skin drifted the streets selling corn or stalking the morning trash.  If they looked up to me, I would turn my head skyward to avoid their pleading eyes.  And I’d feel guilty.  Every morning dark clouds climbed and peered over the surrounding mountains, but at some point in the day the equatorial sun would burn through and dissolve them.  They fought a constant battle.  At one moment you could be walking to lunch through icy mist and in the next you’d feel the sun rip off a layer of skin.  It was a land of volatile seasons every day.

The city had changed noticeably even during the relatively short span of years that I had known it.  Houses climbed the slopes of the surrounding mountains faster than paved roads could be built to get to them.   Forests of buildings replaced the real trees that once covered the land.  Each year the buildings expanded upward while formal roofs were rarely added.  Rebar sprouted out from rooftops like flowerless bouquets until financing was secured to add another level.  Expansion was always the plan but rarely the reality.

Taking the city bus to the university was certainly daunting because routes weren’t formally mapped; instead, they were vaguely listed as a series of street names on a piece of cardboard in the bus front window.  Fortunately there was a bus stop a block away from my cousin’s house.  Even better, it was the first stop of a two hour round trip through northern Quito so there wouldn’t be a competition for an open seat.  One other passenger, a young woman in a business suit, boarded with me and sat in the back while I chose a seat in the front.  The bus crawled up the hill where at the next block it gathered a few more passengers, mostly students, and at the next a few more.  Designated bus stops marked the route but they were generally ignored in favor of the waving arm from the sidewalk.  This might seem incredibly inefficient as the bus stopped every hundred meters or so, but there was so much traffic it couldn’t have gone much faster anyway.  As we passed through the Machala district of Quito, an area my cousin warned turns violent at night, the seats filled quickly and the aisles began to crowd.  It was like a pile of ants swarming around a spilled drop of lemonade.  When it seemed there was no more space, people squeezed together and created it.  I crouched in my seat under the sweaty armpit of a man using my headrest for balance.  The mosh pit of people bounced off each other whenever the bus turned a corner.  What was remarkable is that despite our proximity to one another, nobody spoke.  A few sang quietly to themselves and students lucky enough to find a seat scrambled to finish their homework.  But most of the passengers picked an arbitrary object and stared at it until they reached their stop.  By the time we reached the financial district, we traded the suits for hawkers selling newspapers and mints.

As we reached Amazonas Avenue I recognized several landmarks from previous trips to Quito: the bullfighting ring; the pyramidal hotel where foreigners stayed and where the water pressure was uniquely sufficient to allow for waste paper to be flushed down the toilet instead of deposited in a smelly bin; Carolina Park where one could safely jog during the day or be mugged at night; and El Jardin Mall full of bagless shoppers more content to browse than buy.  I had had an assortment of seatmates thus far—the short, dark man who didn’t know what to do with his hands and nervously rubbed them against his knees, a student of Level Two English, a mother with a small child on her lap.

My stop was near the end of the line where the bus would turn around to complete the route in reverse, but I wasn’t exactly sure which intersection.  While I was glad not to have a swarm to maneuver through, I also felt panicked as the other passengers deserted me.  Had I missed my stop?  Worried I might be heading in a wayward direction, I got off too early and hurried down the street desperately searching for a familiar landmark.  I turned corners, walked up hills, down hills, between buildings and buses, and over piles of dog manure left behind by the legions of stray dogs that roam the city.  I reached a street corner adjacent to a park and scanned the city in all directions.  On the sidewalk, a policewoman in a slick, brown uniform was helping pedestrians cross the busy road.  I resolved to ask her for help.  “Can you help me?  I am very late, and I can’t find la Universidad Católica.”

She looked me over, head to toe, giggling spittle into her fist.  She put a caring hand on my shoulder and spun me around.  She pointed to the American flag waving in front of the US Embassy.  “Go there.”

“Ok, gracias,” I said, frustrated that she had not only laughed at me but also wanted me to go back home to my country.  With my shoulders slumped I walked towards the flag and the white compound that housed it.  Wrapping around the exterior wall was a long line of Ecuadorians each carrying a manila folder with their documents inside.  Dish satellites were jumbled together on the rooftop, and deep inside the compound U.S. diplomats were likely watching football highlights from the previous day.  Too embarrassed to ask anyone for further instructions, I waited patiently in line.  Across the street I noticed a couple of college-aged students pass by with backpacks laden with books.  I stepped out of line and followed them with my eyes down the street until I saw the familiar pedestrian bridge over the busy avenue 12 de OctubreI was close!  With my backpack swaying recklessly side to side, I raced down the street past magazine booths, shoeshine boys, and vendors in brightly colored jumpsuits selling phone cards.  Other pedestrians strolled down the sidewalk without any sympathy to my looming tardiness.  In Quito the suffocating traffic congestion accompanied by a symphony of car horns creates an illusion of a frenetic pace, but nothing could be more distant from the truth.  Quiteños amble through the city completely oblivious to time.  Tardiness was the rule; punctuality the exception.

As I reached the steps leading to the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, I slowed a little when I noticed the other students weren’t in a hurry, but as soon as I reached the staircase of the foreign language building, I charged up the steps until I reached the third floor.  I sidestepped down the hallway scanning the room numbers until I found my classroom.  The door was open.  I was ten minutes late.  My future classmates were at their desks waiting patiently for the professor who had yet to arrive.  We were all a little unsure of each other and of what language we should speak, so we sat in silence.

Twenty minutes after nine, the professor entered.

Midnight Flight

I’m at the airport in Lima, Peru waiting for my midnight flight.  My itinerary from Ecuador to Argentina is not a typical one.  I saved a couple hundred dollars by catching a flight from Lima instead of Quito.  Twenty dollars was all it cost for a bus ride from Ecuador’s capital to the southern border and ten was spent on a hostel in San Ignacio.  Though my ticket says Buenos Aires, the ultimate destination seems as clearly mapped out as the nauseating floor pattern on the thin carpet beneath my feet.

I bought a journal at the gift shop to help me overcome the stretches of boredom that accompany every long voyage.  The cashier gladly accepted my US dollars but gave me Peruvian soles in change.  I didn’t calculate the exchange rate to see if the amount she returned was correct.  Perhaps the game is played here as it is in Ecuador where shortchanging someone is a way of life.   It doesn’t bother me anymore.  I wouldn’t even classify it as dishonesty.  It’s just the way business is done.  There are no apologies when the mistake is pointed out.  The money is quickly recounted, and few customers count their change twice.

I originally came to South America—Ecuador, specifically—to see the jungle, and I’m still trying to figure out how to put into words exactly what I experienced.  Words alone don’t seem to suffice.  For example, there’s the humidity.  Living a good chunk of my life in south Texas, I know a little about humidity, but the word ‘humid’ comes nowhere close to describing the jungle humidity that will turn a package of Tic-Tacs into mushy goo in just a few hours.  And then there’s the mental effect.  The jungle can be suffocating to the point where sense of direction, time, place, and purpose are distorted in so many ways.

The jungle I saw didn’t seem to fit with the glamorous tales of adventure in the Amazon my uncle Enrique used to tell me when I was younger and my mother, a native Ecuadorian, would bring me to Quito to visit her family.  I remember a time when I was eight and I sat on my uncle Enrique’s lap as he pulled out a leather-covered scrapbook and told me of a life completely foreign from my own.  I remember that moment so vividly, staring up at his whiskered face, into his wide eyes hidden behind the thick lenses of his crooked, black-rimmed glasses.  Inside the scrapbook was an assortment of pictures from the jungles of the Amazon basin.  Some were clipped from magazines while others were sepia originals.  My uncle explained that the jungle is like a high-rise apartment building.  In the basement, the river, live the caimans, piranhas, and anacondas.  On the ground are millions of insects in lines of traffic marching and burrowing their way through life.  Midway up the trees are the tarantulas, boas, termites, and monkeys, and at the top are the birds with their enormous nests and panoramic views.

It’s amazing that the world of the birds is a mystery; we’ve studied the ocean floors more than we’ve studied the jungle canopy.

I remember seeing a photo of a jungle shaman.  He wore a crown of colorful feathers on his head and a necklace of jaguar teeth around his neck.  A macaw feather pierced his wide nose.  Then my uncle turned to a loose page consisting of an odd pencil sketch.  The drawing was of a broad-chested bird with a rainbow of feathers, furry legs of a jaguar, the neck of a serpent, and the leathery face of a monkey.  The image was so entrancing it would be permanently imprinted in my mind.  He said the shamans called it, Cayramashi.  I grew up dreaming that somewhere in the jungle, perched high upon a kapok tree out of reach, was a bird as mysterious and enticing as the Cayramashi.