#22 Mexican Impression

I arrived after dark in Mexico City with one word of Spanish. That night I slept to the drone of a language tape, but the next morning I knew not one word more. En route to breakfast I looked up thank you and good morning. “Buenos dias,” I said to the short round woman made of heart and muscle. 
“Buenos dias, senior,” she replied, showing me to my seat. 
Then she said something else. I heard café, so I said, “Por favor.”
Five minutes later she returned with coffee and a plate of eggs with refried beans. “Gracias!” I played my final card.
“De nada,” she smiled. 

After breakfast I retreated to my room to write a few lines about how big the world is, how everyday people cross unimaginable distances, how once it was all within walking distance. 

Even now some distance lingers between strangers. It shrinks to a sense of relief when a shared language emerges. But where none exists it takes a sharp breath into vacuous space, all anxieties of being misunderstood expand to fill it completely. 

Around midday I decided to make an adventure of finding a cafe-bookstore I’d read about. To get there I’d have to cross the plaza Rio de Janeiro, and the enormous replica of David in its centre. Off I went.

Hundreds of years of traffic had softened the cobblestones that led to the statue. Even the soil that lined them, sparsely planted with trees and shrubs, claimed not a patch so old. In the distance I saw David. He stood in a fountain. Between us a man was sitting on the floor. His legs outstretched, his shoes beside him. Behind him his hands, arms straight, a posture reserved for short spells of relaxation. I considered he might be homeless. His clothes were dusty but I wasn't sure. For all I knew he simply preferred old stones to damp grass. And given my uncertainty - and honestly, either way - I tried to make no impression. When he spoke I pretended not to hear. I didn’t want to embarrass him with pesos if really all he wanted were directions.

I found the bookstore. Once inside I made my way bashfully down foreign spines to the English section, then to the cafe section, where the host greeted me with a question about whether I’d be sitting alone. Or so I assumed and said, “Si."

He made a gesture that I understood to mean a choice between inside and out. In response I attempted some physical comedy by sticking out my hand as if to feel the air temperature - but before I could retrieve it for laughs my obliging host understood me to have pointed to my choice.
“Perfecto,” he said, encouragingly.
Somewhat embarrassed I followed his lead and reached for the corner seat. But all at once a woman stood very close. She held a pot of tea and her smile said she had the same idea. She was gorgeous. Her long black hair was curly. Constellated freckles spread to a fade from the bridge of her nose to the swell of her cheeks. A storm raged green and blue in her eyes and each hairline fibre of iris muscle was a bolt of lightening. 
Her lips moved very fast. Probably in good humoured apology - at least four sentences worth. I smiled. My hands made clear the seat was hers. She protested - or perhaps she suggested, given our shared taste in position, we might sit and get to know each other - but valiantly I declined and hurried to another table.

Two coffees and a chapter later I rose to use the bathroom. She was still there when I returned, but further away.

**

Days later, with my Spanish somewhat improved, I traveled to Puebla. There I met former Mr. Puebla and joined his gym. A shoeshiner lit my boots on fire. I made some friends, and I found a tailor to repair an old blazer I purchased at a church market. 

More on that one day.

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#21 The Return

I returned from Arnhem with fragments of truth and soon after tried to separate them from their stories. But the need to prove I’d learned something made ugly and disfigured what was beautiful.

Soon I became entangled in questions about how to live and how to honour the past. In my head two stories turned over and over.

The first was about a man named Murayana. A strong man and a good hunter who traveled by listening for the sound of the didgeridoo. One day Murayana came to a place and gathered the people there for a ceremony of song and dance. Afterwards he became their leader. But as a leader Murayana was greedy and lazy. He took too much for himself and treated the people like slaves. Eventually they sent him away.

The second was the story of Noah. Noah was a righteous man who walked with God and was distinguished in his generation. One day God told Noah that a flood was coming and to build an ark. Noah listened. The ark held his family and all living things, and so ensured their survival.

One day I dreamed I was in a fine house I didn’t build, doing work I'd been assigned. It was cold and there were others but I paid little attention to them. After a long day I was handed a bowl of food. I sat in a dark room on a sofa beside a man who appeared weak, facing a television that was turned off. Like me the man added vegemite to his bolognese. 
Having finished I rose to wash my plate and went outside for fresh air. 
In a warm, sunlit courtyard was everyone else. They were smiling at a man who appeared strong, who thanked them for listening to some words he had prepared. I sat to one side feeling left behind.

I wonder whether anything ever happens one day. In those stories that seems the phrase most difficult to understand.

Meanwhile the adventure continues. Today I travel to Mexico City for a few days, then to Puebla for five weeks. I’m facilitating a project with ten students from Puebla University for the Arquetopia International Art Educators Residency. My plan is to have the students create maps of their town, but instead of significant landmarks the maps will note significant encounters with sound, arranged geographically. I’m hoping that something akin to a voice emerges. Also that participants experience a change in affect, that they feel more connected. Each week I’ll meet with academic staff to evaluate the process and articulate what it means.

Along the way I'll write stories to you. 

Thank you for listening.

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Note: The story of Murayana comes from Arnhem Land. I first heard it when I found an old recording from a project that took place at Gapuwiyak School in 2005. After that I asked some of my friends and family for more details. What I’ve written here is only a fragm