I stared at the Mexicana Airlines clerk in the city of Veracruz in a slight state of shock and momentary disbelief. She had just informed me that somehow my reservation for tomorrow afternoon’s flight from Mexico City to San Francisco ‘se perdió’, had ‘gotten lost’, and neither was my connecting morning flight from Veracruz to the capital on her computer screen. ‘Se perdió’ did not mean that someone, or something, such as the computer in front of this smiling clerk, had lost my reservation. It had ‘lost itself’ and hence was no where to be found. An odd, and for many non-Hispanics, almost incomprehensible feature of the Spanish language whereby, for example, things can fall down and break themselves of their own volition. The wide-eyed child may have been next to it, but ‘el vaso se rompió’, the glass had toppled over and perhaps in a fit of ire had decided to break itself. Utilizing the same line of semantic logic, airplane reservations were easily capable of losing themselves.
The ticket in my hand confirmed that at one time I had had a reservation, but that reservation had evidently evaporated into the ether. Many apologies, and then a quick check revealed that I could be booked for a flight leaving on Sunday rather than Saturday with a connecting flight to San Francisco. I mumbled ‘ni modo’ and gratefully accepted her offer. I had been visiting Mexico for four weeks and in that short time had come to realize that the country and people of this fabled land would find it difficult to exist without frequently calling upon the seemingly ancient god ‘Ni Modo’ (‘it doesn’t matter’). People constantly invoked this powerful deity who had evidently produced this marvelous all-purpose expression of resignation, and almost fatalistic acceptance.
The trip to Mexico had been arranged by the northern California university were I was teaching a course in Latin American authors, and the twelve students and I had spent two weeks in the central Mexican town of Oaxaca as a part of a sister-school program. It offered an opportunity for the students to see and experience first hand some of the cultural differences that are an integral part of any foreign literature. At the end of the course the students headed for the beach communities on the western coast of Mexico, and I had an inexplicable desire to spend time on the more tropical eastern coast. And it was here, after having spent two weeks of exploring the phenomenal state of Veracruz, from the balmy tropical coast to the snow clad mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental, that I was informed that my airplane reservation had lost itself.
Although I don’t remember having done so, I probably internally questioned why I had been so bountifully gifted by those ancient deities in being able to spend a bit more time in this tropical paradise, but ‘ni modo’, I would certainly attempt to make the most of it.
All Mexican towns, large or small, and
following their Spanish antecedents, have as their center of activity, a Plaza.
That Friday evening I found a spot on one of the many benches in the main Veracruz plaza in order
to bask in the soft ocean breeze filled with exotic fragrances. Salt air and
gardenia, roasting chilies and pungent unknown spices. The melodious sounds of
romantic marimbas mingled with the chattering and raucous singing of the large,
darkly iridescent birds known as
'tordos' in the branches of the almendra trees overhead. The constant
soft rustle of palm fronds somehow bound all together in a perfect package.
The plazas always have a number of benches where the people while away the hours in leisurely conversation or leisurely relaxation. Being early in the evening the majority of the benches in this, the ‘Plaza de las Armas’, were still sparsely filled. Well, of course I had taken notice of the classically handsome young man on the other end of the bench where I was seated, who was intensely involved in the book he was reading. And since reading was not only a personal passion, as well as my profession, we just might be able to exchange a few words about this, my favorite topic. Since the exact moment in which to initiate a conversation with a stranger has to be carefully chosen, I waited for what seemed like an opportune time. Of course waiting too long can also be filled with potential dangers. As I was still considering a suitable opening question or comment, an elderly gentleman decided that the particular bench where we were sitting was to be his chosen spot for the evening. And of course the only spot available was right between me and the other bench occupant. Obviously I had waited a bit too long for my opening gambit.
I noticed that the elderly gentleman seated next to me had in his hands a rather well worn copy of “Cien Años de Soledad” by Gabriel García Márquez. It was a personal favorite that I had read several times, always included in my courses, and had on leaving my encounter with Mexicana Airlines picked up the original Spanish language version at the nearby Librería Crystal bookstore. And since I had that same book in my lap, I realized that it could serve as a means of initiating a conversation with him. At least a few words lauding García Márquez as one of the finest Latin American authors would be evidence that the ‘gringo’ was able to communicate in Spanish.
Like most Mexicans, who draw on their Spanish ancestry as well as historical ties to 'la madre España', the elderly gentleman had immediately and somewhat formally introduced himself. "Capitán Mauricio Gonzales y Sánchez, a sus órdenes." Not just a name, but the attached, 'at your service' was a marvelous reminder of the past, when people were aware of gracious and formal introductions. He soon revealed that he was a retired sea captain, then smilingly admitted that he had no idea how many times he had read “Cien Años”, either from cover to cover, or in part. He continued by commenting that he came to the plaza at least once a week, usually on Friday evenings since it was marvelous place to read and partake of life as practiced by the blatantly joyous ‘costeños’, coastal people, of the state of Veracruz.
We began discussing favorite passages from
the novel. Soon the young fellow on the
other side of my new companion joined in the conversation. “Disculpe. Profesor Fernando Chagal Cruz,
para servirle. I couldn't help but overhear your conversation about "Cien
Años”. Somehow, the three of us, with
exactly the same novel in hand, had decided on that particular bench that
evening. It wasn’t long before we had
dubbed our small gathering the 'Sociedad Literaria de los Viernes', the Friday
Profesor Chagal, who had now lowered his book in favor of a bit of conversation, and with a voice as mellow as melted chocolate, continued by explaining that it just so happened that for most of his life he had lived in a Veracruz version of 'Macondo'.
Now, 'Macondo' is the imaginary, isolated
town in the midst of a steamy Colombian jungle where generations of the Buendía
family in the novel "Cien
Años" have always lived. Fernando then went on to explain that he was
originally from a small pueblo about an hour south of Veracruz, which was the living embodiment of
all the suspended laws of reality contained in "Cien Años". In fact,
the young professor contended that it was entirely possible that the author had
modeled the novel's marvelously bizarre characters on his friends, neighbors,
and relatives. As proof of his claim, he mentioned that even the name of his small
town, Saltabarranca, was preposterous. A 'barranca' was a deep, deep ravine,
and 'salta' was
from a verb meaning 'to cross over'. His hometown of 'Saltabarranca' was
located on land as flat as a tabletop hence there was nothing to cross over,
and since they'd never seen one, most of the inhabitants didn't even know what
a 'barranca' looked like.
My own identification with the book was an easy task. I proudly informed my newly encountered friends that I was originally from a rural area of Slovakia, the possessor of 'gypsy genes', real or imaginary, and had known from the time I first read of the gypsies entry into Macondo, that we were undoubtedly close relatives, for we carried some of the same magic in our blood.
With no hesitation, Captain Gonzales turned to passage in the first chapter when José Arcadio Buendía hears the distant pipes, drums and jingles of the gypsy circus as they approach Macondo through the dense jungle. He began to read aloud, although I noticed that he must have committed it to memory since he rarely glanced down at the page:
"Eran gitanos nuevos. Hombres y mujeres jóvenes que sólo conocían su propia lengua, ejemplares hermosos de piel aceitada y manos inteligentes . . ."
["It was a new band of gypsies, young men and women who knew only their own language, handsome specimens with oily skins and intelligent hands, whose dances and music sowed a panic of uproarious joy through the streets, with parrots painted all colors reciting Italian arias, and a hen who laid a hundred golden eggs to the sound of a tambourine, and a trained monkey who read minds, and the multiple-use machine that could be used at the same time to sew on buttons and reduce fevers, and an apparatus to make a person forget his bad memories, and a poultice to lose time, and a thousand more inventions so ingenious that José Arcadio Buendía must have wanted to invent a memory machine so that he could remember them all. In an instant they had changed the village."]
Thus was the magic of Macondo brought to life in Veracruz on that warm spring evening. These three smiling strangers, seated on a park bench in the central plaza of this magical city, had in the deepening twilight established not only a connection to this extravagant novel, but to each other.
Soon Captain Gonzales announced that that it was time for him to leave, and excusing himself he disappeared into the crowd of people chatting in front of the nearby church. The 'Literary Society' may have been abruptly reduced in size, but not in enthusiastic chattering about books and authors.
I soon discovered that my new acquaintance, Fernando, was a professor of art history at a university in the town of Cordoba. A charming city situated on the slopes of a gently slumbering, snow-capped mountain, which I had visited just two days before.
Then as the morning sun dawned behind enormous clouds over the Gulf of México, we realized that while we had been chatting, the night had disappeared. For the two remaining members of this newly established literary group, it was the beginning of a love affair. Or was it a continuation? During our conversation filled hours I was certain that I had known this particular individual forever. There was no overt declaration of love, nor did there have to be. It was something that evidently we had both accepted without the necessity of verbal explanation.
I also knew, without logically or rationally being able to explain it that Fernando and Gregg, my lover who had died a few years before Fernando was born, were intimately connected. Not only was it something intuitive, but there were countless physical manifestations as well. Of course it was not something that I could even verbalize at the time, much less discuss with Fernando.
Before heading for my hotel in the joyful morning’s light we exchanged addresses and promised, though there was little need for promises, to write, to phone. In point of fact I wrote him the first letter a few moments after entering my hotel room.
And included the following from a slim volume of poetry which I had brought with me to Mexico, by Jane Roberts, a favorite author. And with the hope that my translation into Spanish did justice to the original.
got to know each other
too well for chance.
Mine (when we met
You and I)
I could feel them stirring
like a million bees
so my pulses buzzed.
While you and I sat chatting calmly
in a world of surfaces
I sensed your molecules and mine
clink into mysterious new positions,
almost as if
our flesh was synchronized.
I do remember
holding you sideways in my mind,
where I could take glimpses of you
as if you didn’t have my full attention,
but all the time our atoms chatted away
beneath our sentences.
Within a year’s time I had sold my home in Northern California and acquired a teaching position at a small, but prestigious university in the town of Córdoba, on the route that had been utilized by the Spanish conquistadores as they marched from the gulf coast port to the interior Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. For the subsequent five hundred years this had been the connecting highway between the Mexican capital and Europe. It wasn’t exactly a coincidence that my new residence was near the university were Fernando was a professor of Art History, and where I would now be a member of the faculty. From the very first night we had known that our meeting on that park bench had been no chance accident, but rather an intricate maneuver by destiny, which was easily capable of disappearing airline reservations and had enabled us to find each other. And we often chuckled about the fact that it had even included a retired sea captain.
Our life together was idyllic for five wonderful years. We took that long anticipated trip to Costa Rica in order to experience the biodiversity of its incredible rain forests, wonderful, friendly people and beaches that seemed to stretch forever.
And although we had abundant fun during our two weeks in Costa Rica, I had noticed that his normally exuberant personality had acquired an aspect of introspection and quietness that I had never noticed before. Of the many photos which were taken during that outing, my favorite was one of him standing alone on a beach, looking out at the horizon as if he could see something that no one else was capable of viewing. I often wondered if it might have been eternity?
Fernando was in the last stages of working on his PhD, on Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz, a mystical 17th century Mexican nun, who was also a writer, poet and artist. He had gone into Mexico City for a few days to visit with his sister Flora, and to do some additional research. On his last day there he was standing outside the National Library, waiting for the traffic light to change. Three automobiles were involved in an accident and one of them of was sent hurtling onto the sidewalk. A number of the pedestrians were injured, including Fernando. When Flora called to inform me, she explained that he was in the hospital, and they would have more information on the exact nature of his injuries on the following day, then added that they didn’t seem to be too serious, but that she would be staying with him at the hospital.
That night I dreamt that Fernando and I were at a rather large party. We seemed to be in an enormous meadow, with a number of other guests, all standing around, chatting and sipping wine. At one point Fernando began laughing softly, nudged me and pointed down at his feet. I looked down and was amazed to see that he was hovering about a foot above the ground. He was absolutely thrilled with this newly discovered ability and was soon smilingly hovering over my head. He managed a few loops, waved, and then went flying off into the distance over some trees, disappearing into the soft tropical sunset.
phone rang at 4:30 a.m., and even before answering I already knew the message. Flora explained that Fernando had
inexplicably died a few minutes before, evidently from undetected internal
injuries. I haltingly attempted to
explain to her that he had just been with me a few moments before to say
For a considerable time after Fernando's death there were days when I absolutely refused to acknowledge that it had happened. As if my negation could somehow nullify the very act itself. A lot of grief and self-pity, but in time I began to realize how fortunate we had been to have found each other. How filled with love and constant joy our time together had been. Something I would never have known if we had not taken our books to that particular plaza bench on a warm tropical evening so long ago. Limitless gifts which he presented me with then, and continued on into the present.
And I occasionally wondered if the two, relatively
shy bookworms, one Mexican and the other a wandering Slovak, would have had the
courage to begin talking if it had not been for the friendly sea captain seated
between them. A captain, who, as it
turned out, may have only been temporarily visiting from Macondo.
Several years before, in fact only a few months after Fernando and I had established our home in Córdoba, on a balmy late Friday afternoon we decided to make the two-hour trip into Veracruz and see if we could find Captain Gonzalez. It would be an opportunity to chat and serve as a renewal of the Friday Literary Society. On arriving we were fortunate to find ‘our’ bench unoccupied and sat down in anticipation of the arrival of the remaining member of this exclusive society of three.
After several hours had passed, Fernando decided that perhaps the lady at the curio shop behind us would know if Captain Gonzales had been to the plaza recently. It is a well-known fact that in Mexico everyone knows everyone else, or at least one of their many cousins. Doña Rosa seemed a bit surprised at Fernando’s question. Of course she had known Capitán Gonzales, in that for many years he had been a regular Friday night visitor to the plaza and had never failed to greet her and chat for a while before he went to his special bench with his latest reading material. She added that her seven-year old grandson ‘Mauricio’ had even been named in honor of this special gentleman. Yes, it was a bit over seven years ago that Capitán Gonzales had died and she still missed his presence. Fernando and I often pondered our encounter with this special individual who evidently had gone off to ‘Macondo’ and then years later he had returned, for one special night, to serve as our magical intermediary.
Now upon occasion I go into Veracruz on a Friday evening and although my two companions are not physically in attendance, I know that the Literary Society we founded, and the magic of Macondo with its very flexible concepts of space and time, lives on. And in the tropical twilight, I sense the invisible presence of Capitan Gonzales. I can still feel Fernando’s closeness, hear his musical laughter and see that special twinkle in his dark, mystery filled eyes. Special gifts from two special individuals, which I shall treasure forever.