Some travel notes from my trip down to a month-long arts festival in the lovely town of Guanajuato in the middle of Mexico. I was there for four days. The days were very full.
I went there to be on an “SF and the Future” panel with the novelist and graphic artist Bef Mexico City, he’s a fan of mine—going back to his reading Software when he was fifteen—and I once published one of his stories in Flurb. I’ve been trying to get together with him, first last night and now this morning, All night I dreamed about setting up the meeting…I can’t just phone him because I don’t know his number here, or the international prefixes, and I’m paranoid about international phoning charges on my cell. Email kind of works, but it’s spotty.
I think I’ll see Bef and his friend Gabriela Fries in about half an hour, Gaby for short. She’s on the organizing committee of this giant month-long arts festival they’re having here, Cervantino, and the Bef connection is why I’m invited.
Guanajuato is an old town in a little valley, it grew up in the 1500s. I’m in the central historical part of the town, all stone buildings and cobblestone streets, some of the buildings very grand—baroque or neoclassical, as if in Italy or Spain. At one point Guanajuato was one of the richest towns in the world, due to its silver mines. The hills on either side are covered with blocky little houses, a little like in San Francisco, but the house colors are way more saturated and less pastel. Mexican colors. Vibrant.
I can’t speak Spanish at all, which feels awkward when people talk to me. It’s an interesting change from California—down here it’s the Mexicans who run the show. Crowded streets, most of the people reasonably well off.
Some incredible Mexican hipsters.
Dig the lovers in the lower right corner.
As soon as I got here last night, I ordered what were in effect two dinners at a large mariachi-infested Posada Santa Fe on a plaza. Seemed kind of expensive, but I’m confused about pesos, with all those zeroes. (After a day of mulling it over, I figured out it was only about $18 US.) It was unwise to overeat so immediately. This one table at the restaurant, with a man and a woman, they had eight or even ten musicians around the table, playing as loud as they possibly could, for over an hour. The man at the table was singing along some of the time, a lean guy with a mustache and a cowboy hat. His woman looked absolutely thrilled. I took a picture with my phone and she seemed glad. A big night.
Took a walk this morning, enjoying the cool fresh air—we’re at something like 7,000 feet. the sunlight, and all those wonderful colors on the walls. The streets wind around, all cobblestone, and there’s stone alleys between them. I followed one old woman for a block to make my way through a confusing zone. An archetypal behavioral pattern: following in a local’s steps. Mexico as another world. I can see a scene with my characters following an alien in Million Mile Road Trip—maybe a bubble or a bird or an ant.
I really aced my panel session—I “killed,” as the stand-up comedians say. About three hundred people there. I spoke slowly, acting relaxed, explaining cyber+punk, trans+real, science+fiction. The listeners could get simultaneous translation headsets. “The scientists say it’s not science, and the literary critics say it’s not fiction.” Wheenk, wheenk, wheenk.
For the rest of the day, many people who knew who I was, and they came up to me on the street. I was talking to a young man named Franco, from Mexico City, and I mentioned how it was nice to see Mexicans in their own habitat instead of in the US where many of them are in a bad position. I wasn’t sure if I should say this, but Franco totally knew what I meant. He was happy to talk about Mexicans. He said when he visited the US he felt sorry for the Mexicans there, he thought they looked lonely and hangdog. He thought it was strange, or maybe funny, that there’s so many millions of Mexicans in the US.
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I ended up at a hotel called El Meson de los Poetas. Great view of the town, with all the houses on the slopes and, as I say, the vibrance and saturation dialed way up. I’m always processing my photos in Lightroom, and using two sliders with those names. More vibrance makes pale colors as intense as the bright colors, and more saturation makes all the colors more intense. In Mexico, it’s like there aren’t any pale colors at all, and all the colors are, like, whoah!
I’m starting to see in terms of sliders, because I post process my images a lot days. For me, the images I take out of my camera are my negatives, and I use Lightroom like a darkroom for making a final “print” image of those originals that I decide to keep. I crop a lot because I have a wide angle lens. And I tweak with the exposure, highlights, shadow, clarity, contrast, distortion, vibrance and saturation, horizontal and vertical transform, etc.
I was supposed to wait for Bef and Gaby to have lunch, but I got hungry and went to a cafe in a plaza. I ate two bowls of soup and a milkshake in only ten minutes at a sidewalk cafe. I could hardly believe how fast it went. “Has my watch stopped?”
Then I spent some time at a different cafe with Bef and Gaby. Gaby is a mathematician and a science promoter. She’s writing a thesis essay on my novel Software, and I talked about the book, with her typing some notes into her laptop. We’d meant to record it, but neither of us remembered to bring a recorder, so we were down to analog realtime life, off the grid in Mexico.
Bef and Gaby were being so nice and sympathetic that at one point I almost burst into tears. They were saying stuff like: Had I realized what a completely revolutionary novel Software was? Does it bother me that I’ve gotten relatively little recognition for my work? Would I say that now, after 35 years, the public is finally beginning to understand? It’s been a long road, and I’ve stuck to it, always doing it my own way, happy with the work. It’s balm when, now and then, someone understands what I’ve been up to all along.
High on the friendly acclaim, I bought some cigarettes and, back in my room, I stood on my Mexican balcony with my shirt off in the sun, feeling like a Beat ex-pat. Instead of getting stoned, I took a selfie.
Bef himself has published about ten novels, some of them crime novels, and a couple of SF. He says he did two narco crime novels, but now he’s moving on to new crimes, like art forgery. He also does graphic novels, one of them, Uncle Bill, is about Burroughs shooting his wife in Mexico City all those years ago. A theme also treated in my novel Turing & Burroughs. Bef has a Tumblr called Beforama—these days he’s mostly posting cartoons of Frankenstein.
Bef and Gaby said they have a friend who lives in Tijuana, somehow involved with the underworld, and this guy took them to “the most sordid bar in Tijuana.” They sold pot and coke and acid over the counter there, the place had never ever been cleaned, but, says Bef in his mild, calm voice: “It wasn’t at all threatening. It felt very safe. Everyone was friendly.”
We talked about Mexico City, where Beg and Gaby live. The population is 24 million. They call the city just “Mexico,” just as a New York City dweller speaks of “New York.” Regarding this Mexico, Bef says it has one of the largest ex-pat American populations in the world, yet…the Mexicans never see them. The ex-pats live in enclaves, go to American restaurants, send their children to American schools. Like hidden aliens. But maybe that’s not so different from other ex-pat communities worldwide.
I shouldn’t have had those cigarettes yesterday, my chest hurts today. I sent a lot of recklessly cheerful emails last night, almost as if I was drunk. Social networking gets so important when you’re alone.
My bad hip hurts a lot. Next Monday I’m getting it replaced for the third frikkin’ time—don’t even ask—and I’m uptight about this. It’s affecting my mental stability. I’ve been having nightmares almost every night. Last week I dreamed about a nurse who wasn’t really a nurse, she was the angel of Death. Vintage horror move. The moment of realizing that this “nurse” isn’t caring for you, she’s imprisoning you, and she’s terribly strong, and she seems to have more than two arms. The starchy plastic cloth clamped across my nose and mouth. And why oh why does the doctor have no face?
Two nights ago I dreamed about trying to calm a guy who was screaming that he couldn’t stand disorder. Last night I dreamed that I was unloved and alone, a wistful outsider, lost forever. My first thought this morning was, “I wish I was dead.” But then I looked out from my balcony and again everything was good.
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I’m very happy to be in Guanajuato, and I wish I could stay longer. Like…forever? Learn Spanish. Some of the people are very attractive, others grotesque, others archetypal in Bruegelian ways. I can only guess at their inner lives, these denizens of an unknown world.
Huge numbers of police in town, riding around six or seven in a car, looking a little like street gangs. All different kinds of cop uniforms, some of them carry automatic rifles or machine guns. Bef says it’s because the governor of the Guanajuato state doesn’t want any kind of bad thing to happen at their prized festival.
Yesterday I spent some time with another conference participant, a somewhat eccentric map-maker named Peter Eberhardt latched onto me two separate times, and a welcome diversion both times, Peter behaving like a tour guide. Very knowledgeable, he lived in Mexico for many years. He says he’s drawn the best map ever of the US, and it won a prize. He was looking to find a local educational poobah whom he could tell about his map. It was fun to be with him. He pushed our way into this huge folkloric dance show, with thousands of people watching. I was glad to be on the scene, although I tend not to like that kind of spectacle. “Awkward mating rituals,” as Eberhardt put it. He says the folkloric dances are particularly well-loved in Mexico, a cultural touchstone.
I wonder if Bef likes the dances. He’s a city guy. He says he doesn’t like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books or magic realism. Why not? He finds found these books corny—perhaps in same way that I find some of Ray Bradbury’s work corny. Nostalgic evocations of rural life. Who cares about made-up caricature people who never could have existed in the heartfelt teary-eyed way being described.
Today Bef insists on going to see the Mexican mummy museum, and I think it’ll be freaky and depressing, also it’s a half hour’s walk from here, and in an unkown part of town. My son Rudy Jr. was urging me to see it too. He was on a tour around Mexico a few years ago with the Cyclecide Bike Rodeo group—putting on shows with a gang of SF hipsters—and he passed through Guanajuato. So I guess, yeah, I’ll see the Mexican mummies.
I didn’t eat all that much yesterday, and I’ve been avoiding fresh vegetables and unpeeled fruit, and drinking only bottled water, and I still don’t have the “squirts,” which I dread getting again in Mexico, like I did back in Puerto Vallarta when we went there nearly thirty years ago, or in Spain when I was there fifty years ago, or in Manhattan about twenty years ago. You don’t want to repeat those kinds of experiences that you remember with horror for decades.
On a more upbeat food note, I’ve had some really excellent tacos at this dive called Trompo. So good that I moan and grunt while I eat them—hey, I’m eating alone. The corn tortillas are fresh-made, and they fry them in fragrant meat grease, and the meat is chopped small and singed black. The taco is tiny, two little corn tortillas on top of each other, with the meat on that, and you have bowls of cilantro and pickled chopped onion and a great green salsa to add on. I can eat one of those Trompo tacos in about two bites. I had five of them in a row yesterday. The pork taco al pastor is far and away the best. I see lots of people eating tacos at stands on the street, as well, crowds of them, and Rudy had urged me to try those, but I’ve held back from that. Don’t want to go all muy squirtado.
I hiked up to the ridge above my hotel, a serious climb, like a thousand feet, up stone staircase alleys, the air thin, my heart clenching in my chest. At the top I could see into the next valley, with similar kinds of houses, but not so many. The houses on the hill are ancient, many have been here for five hundred years. Like an anthill or a stone hive. Like the Alfama district of Lisbon, Escherian with twists and turns. Barking dogs and crowing roosters. Some of the dogs barking in a blood-chilling kind of way—in an oh-I-think-I’ll-go-into-a-different-alley kind of way.
Beneath the surface of Guanajuato is a maze of tunnels, with tunnel intersections, and ramps popping up here and there. Retrofitted from drainage tunnels built by those excavation-happy miners. Means there’s less surface traffic in the lovely town. You can walk in the tunnels too, if you want to, but I didn’t want to.
After my hike, Bef showed up and we talked for awhile, sitting in armchairs by the balcony window in my room. I noted down a few of the things he told me. He mentioned the word chiflado, meaning “crazy.” It comes from the verb chiflar, meaning “whistle.” The chiflado has been touched by the whistling breath of the beyond. He also mentioned that his brother had been in a reggae/ska band called Mamá Pulpa, meaning Mother Octopus. Here’s a video of their tune, “Que Mal Gusto.”
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Bef also told me one of the biggest bands in Mexico at one time was called Café Tacvba. Here’s a video of their tune, “Quiero Ver.” And he was involved with a zine called Sub (as in subliterature, as in Sf or crime novels.) And he was in a story anthology called Mexico City Noir.
And then we did go to the Mummy museum—my legs were rubbery by now, so we took a Mexican bus part of the way, exciting for me, and not something I could have managed on my own. I told Bef I was happy to be seeing the sights with him, as being his partner made me cool, and less of a tourist. He said I didn’t look like a tourist anyway because my eyes are intelligent as opposed to dull and blank. Of course I do carry a camera. Bef pointed out a nice little cyberpunk tableau—a man repairing computers with a screwdriver and pliers in a store that was, literally, a hole in the wall.
I took really a lot of photos in Guanajuato, about 200, continually carrying my kick-ass street-photographer wide-angle 22 mm lens Fujifilm model X100T. You have to switch the battery at least once a day. Working the camera so intensely, I’m getting smoother at using its dauntingly large array of settings. Something I’m trying to learn is how to grab shots of things happening, that is, when I see something staring, I want to quickly aim at it and press the shutter button and get a fast click and have the photo be in focus. There can be this deal-killing lag of a half a second while the camera focuses.
Something I haven’t tried recently is to manually set the focus to a reasonable range, and not have it getting measured, and that speeds up the response. Or go even more manual and set some reasonable shutter speed as well, like 1/125. And let the camera decide on the aperture. Or even pre-set the aperture too, which speeds up the camera’s response even more. If you’re running the images through Lightroom or Photoshop, you can usually fix a frame that’s too dark (underexposed). The thing you can fix is if it’s out of focus or if there’s motion blur.
It sometimes annoys people if you grab a shot of them. I kind of like being sneaky, although now and then I’ll go brazen like patron saint street photographer Gary Winograd, and get right in people’s faces, and then smile and nod at them as if what you just did is okay. If you ask a subject’s permission before the shot—that’s more the “polite” thing to do, but then you may not get a good shot, as they’ll be tense, or posing in a blank way.
What will work is if you go further than just asking permission, that is, if you take the time to chat with them and get to know them a bit, and have them be as curious about you as you are about them—my sense is that Diane Arbus took this route. But I hardly ever do that. I’m not someone who’s great at talking to strangers. If someone ends up looking wearily pissed off in a photo then I do feel slightly bad. But it might also be a good photo.
Anyway, the mummies were even more disgusting and horrible than I’d expected, but at least the “museum” wasn’t all plastic and educational…it was scuzzy and funky and Mexican and like carnival side-show. By the way, these bodies weren’t deliberately mummified in the Egyptian sense—there’s something about the dry, hot air around Guanajuato that just preserves some bodies, makes them look like hideous sagging beef jerky. These mummies were, as I understand it, bodies that were excavated and evicted from this one particular graveyard next to the mummy museum. The families of these bodies were unable or unwilling to pay the graveyard an additional fee for “perpetual burial.” So the mofos running the graveyard dug up the “deadbeat” bodies and put them on display!
The impresarios seem to have a certain sense of macabre humor. The mummies are dressed or posed in odd ways. Like, dig how this zombie guy is undoing his pants, presumably so as to unleash his ectoplasmic penis… Eeeek! The very worst are the mummies of babies—I refused to even look at them. Bef didn’t mind the babies. He likes the museum in the way that a kid might like creepshow horror comics. The last time Bef went there was when he was eight, a big family roadtrip up from Mexico City to see the Mexican mummies!
Bef recounted a story (possibly an urban legend) that at one point, like in the 1950s, the Mexican mummies of Guanajuato were lent or rented to an American sideshow for a year, and when they came back, one mummy was missing. A great set-up for an SF/fantasy/horror tale. “The Missing Mummy.” He’s coming back, he’s about to step out of this taxicab down in the street outside my midnight balcony, and look at the nice red glow of the tail lights on the cobblestones. The mummy has come to town to seek me out. Needs some advice on certain interdimensional anomalies. Maybe Bef and I can co-author such a story or graphic novel of these days. Do it in a bilingual edition, Spanish and English. Sell it to Berlitz and Rosetta Stone for their language courses…
On the way to the mummy museum, Bef went into a Mexican wireless service store, I think it was Telcel, not that this photo of the Telcel office—which is every bit as cold and and monochrome as an Apple outlet. Bef wanted to renew his phone plan, and it took a long time (and he was unsuccessful), but I didn’t mind waiting.
I was glad to sit down, and I filled up a whole page of notes for ideas about this “Ultrastorm” chapter I want to write for my Million Mile Road Trip. And I’ll talk about these ideas in the next entry of these “Writing Notes,” incorporating some further revelations I was granted while visiting the Diego Rivera Museum in Guanajuato on the next day.
Oh, and many thanks to the Cervantino Festival, to Bef, and to Gabriela Frias. I like Bef’s Batman T-shirt here.