Sunday, March 28, 2021
On a visit around a decade and a half ago I read — devoured — Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men in Tulum, perhaps not the represetative holiday read in a location that, back then at least, seemed a lot like a vision of paradise, 24-7.
One could walk up and down the near deserted beach, the only flagrant sound that of the waves breaking noisily around 20m from the shoreline, and imagine oneself in the shoes (sandals probably) of shipwrecked conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero, who splashed ashore near here in 1511. He must have had time to marvel a bit before the Maya came and knabbed him.
I remember when I first rocked up myself, aged twenty, I'd never experienced seawater as scrumptiously warm as this. A near perfect stretch of white-sanded, palm-lined beach. Pristine. There was something a little uncanny about it.
People will say it must have been paradise back in '88 when there was not a single hotel worthy of the name anywhere near the ruins, just a spot where one could 'sling up' a hammock. Well no, not really. There needs to be some basic cabaña-style accommodation available before the P word can be unabashedly deployed.
I once spent the night on a deserted desert caye in Belize, slinging up my hammock rather archetypally between a pair of palms just the right distance apart, and soon the mosquitos and sand-flies were vying with each other to chip away at my underside. Rather like The Good Place, it turned out not to be.
Guerrero emerged from servitude amongst the Maya to become a respected tribal warrior. To describe what it means to go native in modern day Tulum would inevitably involve saying a lot of disparaging things about certain members of the Millennial generation.
Let's just say that most of the wayfarers one spots around these parts nowadays look like they take a mean Instagram selfie. And ooooh, so pleased with themselves.
There appears to be an odd Dorian Grayish effect transpiring here. As the hedonists convening in Tulum get ever more beautiful, the location itself is finding it that much harder to shroud its crescive corruption.
Maybe No Country For Old Men would be a far more appropriate read in 2021.
Anyway, I certainly might have mistimed my arrival on the Mayan Riviera this year to coincide with Spring Break plus Easter. It has happened before and I have regretted it.
The seasonal aglomeraciones manifesting themselves around this time are extraordinary, and one still has to factor in the notable absence of certain European nationals yet to be let out of their cages.
There is an amount of French being spoken, and not the good sort, if you know what I mean. More Weh than Wee. Canucks possibly. Or maybe not...
There are also a rather worrying number of Brazilians na mistura. I guess the Mexicans, with their lax entry requirements, are the only ones that will have them just now.
It's not exactly a no questions asked immigration process, as I was asked quite a lot of questions, just not really the right ones, and ended up asking one of my own: Do you actually want to see my negative test from yesterday?
Some British academic clad in a hair shirt opined the other day that only his compatriots with valid (i.e non fun) reasons for going abroad should be permitted to do so...for most of the rest of 2021. These superior reasons — work, education — might actually have enhanced pestilence potential, but I guess it is a numbers game in the end.
The numbers on the playa in Tulum are being driven by the expansion of the town of that name which sits astride the 307 highway, several kilometres away.
The other afternoon I witnessed a traditional Mayan lesbian wedding on the beach conducted by a sacerdote who looked about as traditionally Mayan as Boris Johnson, plus a woman prancing around in a white cotton tunic whilst waving copious quantities of copal incense into the air — which still struggled to compete, aroma-wise, with all the wacky backy.
Most of the places to dine of a night appear now to be run either by fresas posing as hippies (yet that much more like trustafarians) or soi-disant named chefs, the sort of place where — if one asks for wine by the glass — one is served one's sauvignon plonk in a humungous copa into which the waiter ceremoniously deposits a volume of liquid he might have exceeded had he spat into it.
As a minor aside, within Greek restaurants on this coast there appears to be a standard requirement for female members of the team to cosplay as she who launched a shitload of ships, while Hey Amigo generic seems to be OK for all the blokes. At least until the floor show starts.
It's all a bit Naff — or Naffe — in a Buddha Bar kind of way. To be fair, Ilios Greek Estatorio is one of the more modish eateries I've had the chance to loiter in since Medellín, 2018. And unlike the Buddha Bar Paris, it doesn't come across as the sort of joint in which John Wick might suddenly show up and start shooting people. (That said, I have spotted a couple of novelties in Tulum: Mariachis and Russians. Russians FFS — what the actual feck is Cuba for?)
The waiters at Ilios start to go full on Zorba/Jewish wedding as the evening develops. Good on them. It's plate-smashingly fun like the Greek restaurants of my parents' generation. Who needs John Wick when the management invites patrons to trash the place?
Something else one never used to see in Tulum: mobile covid testing units, parked every few hundred yards along the road running behind the sand and looking very much like taco trucks.
In Mexico I guess you have to say covid as if you are Hannibal Lecter, because that is how the government's man on the spot, Hugo López-Gatell, says it. Covidddthhhhth...
Saturday, March 20, 2021
Most of us have probably found ourselves in a situation where there appear to be two entirely incompatible versions of reality in play. 'Recollections may differ' as Buckingham Palace recently put it.
In 2018 I was in a Guatemalan courtroom when a judge pronounced, in all seriousness — 'There are two truths here' (hay dos verdades aqui) — and at first this seemed a bit of a face-slapping moment, given that the other party's truth had just been revealed to be a fairly grotesque pair of lies, one via documentation, the other an open admission of having told a fib. (That I had thrown shards of glass into her pool. Not really a white lie that one.)
And yet...my academic background has always inclined me to a certain way of handling this situation. For the apparent schism between two dead set ways of seeing the same basic situation is never as absolute as it may at first appear, and there is nearly always a hidden interaction between them, the one having fed off the other, sometimes rather less than consciously.
And there's rarely an inherent exclusivity in these polarities. Often enough, part of the solution is to come up with a third. At least then you can show that the choice is not entirely binary.
Friday, March 19, 2021
It has probably not escaped everyone's attention that we live in an era when individuals growing up within western cultures are generally unafraid to assert their own truths, which need not be all that factual. It's called lived experience. Feel like a victim? Well, you are, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise.
Back in the 1950s Phillip K Dick discovered a pair of Greek terms used by clever men with beards, which may help us to understand this better. Koinos Kosmos and Idios Kosmos.
The former refers to what used to be known as objective reality but is now recognised to be something more like a social convention. The latter is the particular vision of the world that each of us has in our head. Lived experience.
The title of this post was also the title of a story Dick had published in 1957. The Eye part at least. It features a technological MacGuffin called a Bevatron that accidentally zaps a six million volt proton beam at eight unfortunate individuals standing on a nearby observation platform.
The victims appear to regain consciousness, and return home apparently none the worse for the experience. But then the Koinos Kosmos starts to go on the blink, at least from the point of view of this group. In short, their collective experience of reality is hijacked by the far more personal Idios Kosmos of one of these unfortunates, and then another, and another.
First they experience the world through the recovering consciousness of a religious nutjob, from answered prayers to biblical plagues, then an old woman whose mind subtracts from reality pretty much everything that annoys her, from car horns, through genitalia and door to door salesmen to atonal music. Next up a young person mired in paranoia. Her personal reality is one in which everything has the potential for danger and deceit.
Then Dick outlines what happens when a fourth victim starts to customise their collective world — a militant communist. This was the 1950s after all, but for today's purposes one could rejig the story to accommodate an archetypally woke liberal (and the joke that they are actually still asleep within the Bevatron might then work even better.)
None of the eight are quite sure which member of the group has dumped them into this grotesque environment where all the wealth is controlled by heartless bloodsucking plutocrats and children roam the dumps looking for scraps.
Amongst them there's a husband who has always suspected that his wife Marsha has been secretly attending those meetings. The author of course resolves the mystery differently, revealing in the end that the authoritarian head of security not the tender-hearted housewife was the secret Soviet sympathiser. Dick always understood where totalitarianism came from.
He sent a copy to Scruggs, the FBI agent who dropped round regularly with his dog for a chat. Scruggs didn't get the fun philosophical payload of this tale at all; he just wanted to know if Dick believed the Russians might be developing their very own Bevatron capable of transmogrifying reality based on socialist psychological biases.
Monday, March 15, 2021
A team of salvagers encounter three eroded coins on a sunken galley that belonged to Sir Francis Drake (kind of a pirate and also not quite we're told, as if to humour both Spanish and British biases) which together somehow indicate the burial place of the privateer's treasure.
But then along come the Spanish customs authorities (AEAT) and the significant and signifying small change ends up inside an impossible vault within the Banco de España in Madrid. Cue heist shenanigans as the salvagers recruit an engineering boy wonder from Cambridge to solve their problem for them.
Jaume Balagueró's euro-caper has a very likeable cast and is generally terrific...but then I have to admit they had me at Madrid.
If I were to be given the choice of a flash weekend break in either Madrid or Barcelona, I'd always pick Madrid, and on some levels I suppose that makes me a bit weird. Spain's oddly riverless capital is one of my favourite cities in the world.
Here we get to see it at the culmination of the knock-out phase of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and so we kind of know where this is going in terms of last act crescendo. (And unlike the characters, most of us will probably also know that there was extra time in the final.)
It's a moment in time that many Europeans will have vivid memories of. Sadly, for me there are also heartbreaking associations as my best friend from Cambridge died in an accident during the group stages.
La Furia Roja's progress to the title that year felt inevitable, and yet in the end it came down to one decisive moment. This makes the backdrop seem a very suitable accompaniment to the developing action here.
Also featuring prominently is the Plaza de Cibeles outside the bank, a bronze replica of which sits in the middle of a traffic circle in the Roma Norte district of CDMX, directly below the apartment block where I usually stay when visiting the Mexican metropolis.
We've been watching too many B movies of late. This is a European film that felt like it belongs in the company of the big screen Hollywood A-list.
Saturday, March 13, 2021
It's been a week in which the pointy heads have been throwing all sorts of spanners into the works.
There was Julia Gog at my alma mater who has come up with a model suggesting that vaccinating the elderly exclusively in the early phases may actually stimulate the evolution of the novel coronavirus, potentially in ways we are not going to appreciate. ('Escape Variants').
Meanwhile, archaeologists — some of them at least — have turned up a primitive stone tool in India, provisionally dated to 2.6m years ago, which would suggest that our ancestors may have left Africa half a million years earlier than generally thought. Up until now the oldest evidence of the Homolineage we have had is from 2.8 million years ago at Ledi-Geraru in Ethiopia. (Other dirt scrapers have retorted that the stone is so basic it could have ended up that way without hominid intervention.)
And then a new survey of the cosmos has shown that the distribution of matter may not be the same in every direction, a violation of the cosmological principle which posits that, viewed on large enough scales, the distribution of matter ought to be smooth and regular in every direction. The scientists involved looked at 1.3m quasars — supermassive black holes surrounded by bright matter that are found at the centre of some galaxies — and a lack of symmetry was observed, far exceeding that previously seen in other measurements.
Not sure how to describe this. Think thriller designed to make one feel glum. A glummer?
The plot sits somewhere between uncertain and predictable. And yet, overall, it worked for me.
I think this is because it is a story that the title describes fairly accurately — a story about a place. For better or for worse I felt I had been transported to damp and gloomy Sligo. And that sense of being there made the on screen action that much more affective than it might otherwise have been.
Thursday, March 11, 2021
Wednesday, March 10, 2021
So long to La Antigua's most accessible public library, which sat above the G&T bank alongside the Parque Central. A smallish space of fond memory, especially for my wife.
Around a decade ago the city started to shed its bookshops — in part, I suppose, as a response to the arrival of digital text — yet along the way a specific kind of very local narrative has been re-cloistered.
Rosemary Hill on the many light shows of Georgian London, which...
...included transparencies painted on canvas and backlit with oil lamps to mark notable public occasions. The Treaty of Amiens in 1802 saw a display outside the French ambassador’s residence where the figures of France and England stood united between the words ‘Peace’ and ‘Concord’. Unfortunately, some sailors in the crowd whose spelling was weak felt insulted at the implication they had been conquered and started a riot. The transparency was taken down and ‘Concord’ hastily repainted to read ‘Amity’.
Tuesday, March 09, 2021
All that talk of 'the Firm', 'the Institution' or 'the Palace' struck me partly as a subterfuge — a way of describing the monarchy as an entity disconnected from British public life and indeed public service.
Specifically the whinge about withdrawn security was emanating from a couple who had chosen to live abroad, and in spite of having benefited from a $13.8m legacy from Diana, still expected the UK taxpayer to fund their protection in LA.
The British people were the most glaring omission from the whole discussion, only ever alluded to via their apparent surrogates, 'the tabloids'.
The Queen has devoted the best part of her life to the Commonwealth. Yet on more than one occasion in this interview Meghan, a non-Commonwealth citizen of mixed ancestry was presented as an obvious 'asset' to the institution for what seemed like largely skin deep reasons, something that was in some ways itself a demonstration of unconscious racial bias.
Our neighbour Belize is a Commonwealth country, where the Queen is head of state and features prominently (and youthfully) on the bank notes. It is a very diverse nation with Creole, Mennonite, Garifuna, Maya, and Hispanic populations, even the descendents of Confederate soldiers who settled there after the Civil War. As Meghan suggested though, 60-70% or more are 'people of colour' as defined within her own culture.
Would young Belizean girls see themselves in this affluent American actress turned Duchess with distant and diluted African roots? Would she bring a feel good factor to the Commonwealth connection by dint of her own ancestral diversity, alone?
To suggest that this must be the case is not only slightly dubious, it is jarringly condescending and it comes packaged with the insinuation that the Royal Family are a bunch of aristocratic in-breds that absolutely needed to be diversified in order to continue to be relevant.
And for Harry it was not enough to condescend to British citizens, then Commonwealth citizens, he had to publicly and unnecessarily patronise his father and brother as weak men trapped within a system they were unable to break free from.
'No questions off limits'? Except the ones about his in-laws. His father wasn't the only one with whom the Skype calls petered out.
One has to conclude that the whole thing was largely the construct of a brainstorming session with LA lawyers. There was more than a hint of blackmail — we have a race card we can play anytime, a 'very damaging' one, so make sure our kids get their titles when due, oh and let's not detect any sudden upticks in James Hewitt chatter now that we have left the protective bubble.
These are a couple of hours of my life I am never getting back.
I suppose if there was one highlight it was the part where two people discussed unconscious racial bias in a manner that clearly demonstrated unconscious racial bias. And really had absolutely no idea they were doing it.
And then later on Harry was taken out of his sound-proofed room and made to repeat the offending observation and sounded even more condescending and racist when he said it (because he's royal and white, I suppose) and even less aware of just how awful it sounded, to me at least.
Other take-outs included the fact that nobody mentioned the British people — those folk that generally welcomed Meghan into their culture for a few years and paid for a lot of the stuff, like security.
Harry came across as perhaps the more credible witness, indeed a good deal more sympathetic than I had anticipated before I somewhat reluctantly sat down to watch this. Yet behind the pain, there is self-delusion. I used to be trapped, but didn't realise, he says. And he still is, and doesn't.
For I can see that Meghan is now free, happy and rich and find myself not really caring all that much, though I get why she felt she wanted...needed to do this interview. But Harry should have stayed in that sound-proofed room.
I've often wondered if Meghan would have had an even worse time with the tabloids in Britain if, instead of a having an African American mother (which kind of forced the likes of the Daily Mail to dog whistle their rabid prejudices) she had had a mother from a whiter and trashier demographic.
The overt disdain often directed at Kate Middleton's mummy is fading from memory. Imagine if she had been American.
We Brits don't often do racism all that well, but snobbery...
Sunday, March 07, 2021
I haven't travelled by air since February last year.
I am presuming that the rules regarding gels and liquids in hand luggage have not since been relaxed owing to the pandemic.
This strikes me as a little absurd. On a regional flight in Central America, one is surely in greater danger right now of contracting or passing on covid than one is of being the victim of a mid-air IED made from anti-bacterial alcohol gel.
I for one would feel a bit more comfortable about returning to the skies in 2021, especially on long haul routes, if I were able to gel up at my own convenience once the cabin doors are shut.
Saturday, March 06, 2021
Friday, March 05, 2021
Everybody has one here, men in particular.
My cuñados: Leo, Cachorro, Coca, Pepsi, El Negro, Seco.
Victor Hugo del Pozo for example is (el) Caleta.
I saw a news item this morning on the Interwebs which referred to a local lawyer: Chiltepe.
The near universality of nicknames in Guatemala is a phenomenon that was alluded to memorably in Francisco Goldman's first novel The Long Night Of White Chickens.
These monickers are like historical sellos, with a wider currency extending through the whole panza verde community.
At school and university, and then later professionally, I was often addressed by a variety of gently mocking plays on my first name — not the obvious one — and in Monaco (only) I was for a while known as Asparagus / L’asperge for much the same reason my most senior cuñado is known as Seco. (Though neither of us are perhaps quite as svelte as we were when we acquired these sobriquets.)
None of these however could be said to be have been tracking me throughout my lifespan in the way that Chapin apodos tend to do with their bearers.
Thursday, March 04, 2021
Standards of customer service have been creeping up lately in La Antigua. Almost literally.
On a recent trip to the Bodegona I was to notice how on more than one occasion fledgling staff members had crept up to the zone behind one of my shoulders with what proved to be rather helpful suggestions.
What gives? The pandemic gives I suppose, even as it takes.
The handiest of these little interventions occurred in the area of the wine rack where I was seeking a bottle of the Finca Las Moras malbec (a decent tinto that goes down well with memories of Mexico City) and yet could only find the cab.
My rummaging around behind the two bottles at the front was surely what drew the attention of one of the apprentices, and I soon had what I wanted, an item which had been standing on a lower shelf for some reason.
Wednesday, March 03, 2021
So said Ambrose Bierce, and the quip still works here if you drop one of the Ms as well.
Bierce rather famously vanished for good, in Mexico.
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Tuesday, March 02, 2021
Monday, March 01, 2021
Their limited pool of neighbours include a mute and hyper-weird boatman, chirisbisco-face (above), two rather psychotic young girls of the same age as his daughter and a mysterious local man with whom the professor plays chess, a scenario which ultimately comes to echo The Seventh Seal.
The things and places of fond — or even just significant — childhood memory can be divided into those that can be revisited — usually accompanied by some discombobulation or disappointment* — and those which cannot.
In my own biography, one of the latter has been the Victoria Station Cartoon Cinema (1933-1981).