adventure

historical Prague Cold War novel adventure

Prague Diary (1) – A Historical Adventure

Sleeping Beauty Has Wakened!

We haven’t even left the tarmac in London when a horrible feeling sucks the air out of my stomach. Which is ludicrous. I have been excited for months about this historical adventure, returning to Prague after 46 years to research my new novel, and my son and daughter-in-law will be waiting for me at the other end. I close my eyes, let the feeling reveal itself.

Prague, Cold War, travel

Prague then

Memory stores itself physically, apparently. Fifty years ago I made this same trip three times a year. My parents had been appointed Canada’s ambassadors to Czechoslovakia and, because there were no English-language high schools behind the Iron Curtain in Prague, I was incarcerated in England’s Roedean School for Girls. Each time I buckled my seatbelt at the beginning of school holidays, I wondered what would be waiting at the other end.

Tensions were often high in a house full of state appointed servants and Cold War microphones, and I was not allowed to make friends with Czechs. To be seen with a Westerner meant ruin. Just before I left Prague for the last time, in August, 1968, one of the Russian tanks that would crush President Dubcek’s Prague Spring ten days later rolled down the street outside our house.

Forty-six years later my plane lands in darkness. A taxi whisks me down wide new roads into a city that appears to have awakened from a long, long sleep. I see the medieval towers at either end of the Charles Bridge, and the Rudolfinium, and the National Theatre, and palaces that fifty years ago were bleak, soot-stained monuments to a past that was deemed not to matter. Now their beautiful carved stone exteriors are lit up, the gold highlights on their statues polished.

“Come on, Mom,” says my son, “you need to eat.”

Prague now, Cold War, history, love, adventure

Prague now

And now I’m walking through 700-year old streets I remember, but only the cobblestones are familiar. Buildings once silent and grey now gleam with brightly-lit shops. People flowing past me are speaking Italian, French, German, Russian. A fairy tale church spire just past the Estates Theatre, where Mozart conducted the premiere of his opera Don Giovanni in 1787, chimes the hour.

In a restaurant up an alley that has been here since before Columbus discovered America (and features in my new novel) we feast on roast goose, pickled red cabbage and dumplings, washed down with wine and then slivovice, a Czech specialty.

Maybe somewhere along the way I died, I think, and have been lucky enough to be admitted to the unlikeliest of Heavens.

Good Morning Canada, Who Are You?

A Trip West

 

When three invitations to present my new novel, Cally’s Way, arrived from Edmonton, my husband and I packed the trunk of our second-hand Volvo with books and hit the road.

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Canada today is very different from the country I knew growing up as the daughter of diplomats. Then, we were respected across the world as a thriving democracy and an international peacekeeper.

Last month our prime minister did not attend the U.N.’s summit meeting on climate change. Today’s Canada muzzles its scientists, harasses PEN Canada, which champions freedom of speech, does not even try to meet carbon reduction targets. Toronto, our biggest city, is run by a confessed drug addict.

What happened? How did that Canada become this Canada? Maybe driving across the country would yield some answers.

 

Days 1 & 2 – Behind the Pines

Fall is touching central Ontario’s sugar maples with red, orange, yellow, gold. Further north, pines that inspired Canada’s Group of Seven painters find purchase among the Canadian Shield’s granite crags and cliffs.

Chi-chi bakeries populate Muskoka Lakes towns where some of the country’s wealthiest families own summer homes, but drive north for a couple of hours and the scene changes.

Motels, gas stations, small businesses along the highway have been abandoned. Those that remain are suffering, their grocery shelves as bare as some I have seen in the third world. But, noticing my walking sticks, a store owner stops mopping the floor to help me.

No gas today. Sorry for the inconvenience.
Trees, trees and more trees line the highway. Cold, wind-whipped rain makes clear how powerful are the forces of Nature up here. Slide off the road or hit a moose and without help you will surely perish.

Billboards and signs offer clues to what goes on behind the trees:

Fishing and hunting lodges will fly in their clientele
When I was a junior reporter in Thunder Bay, I spent a weekend at one of these wilderness lodges, helping in the kitchen, exploring the river, playing penny card games late into the night. Forty-two years later the smell of frying bacon still takes me back into that wild peace.

You are now entering a First Nations reserve
A few years ago, while working in a Moose Factory school, I visited a Cree fishing camp on the mighty Moose River just south of James Bay. Hidden by brush, the camp was invisible until our canoes landed. We feasted on grilled, freshly caught fish, learned how to make a duck blind and mud decoys, then sat, silently waiting for the sound of wings. Knowing that each of us was one tiny breathing participant in the great dance of Nature. What a gift!

Violence against women must stop
Testimony during a murder trial I covered for the Chronicle-Journal in 1972 took me into a wilderness hunting camp near Long Lac. The accused was a slight, shy eighteen-year old boy. Waking in the night, hearing one of the older women crying for help in another tent, he found her struggling under a large, very drunk man — his uncle. He yelled, tried to wrestle the attacker. Could not pull him off. Finally, in desperation, he picked up the closest object, an axe, and buried in his uncle’s head. A court full of white men sent the boy to prison for life. Where, I wonder, is he now?

Impossibly blue Lake Superior, stretching as far as the horizon, is framed by red granite cliffs polished by the rain.

Barrick Mine
Just for a moment, the wall of trees breaks. A building and  pond are dwarfed by a pile of gravel as high as a hill.

Further west, more trees — deciduous, cedar, pine — all vying for every square inch of earth remind me of other parts of the world, where people of different races and faiths are battling each other for control of land they call home. When the rain lets up, blackened skeletal trunks appear where recent forest fires destroyed everything. Under them, light new-green growth has already begun.

Highways up here are new and beautiful. Cities we are passing through — Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay, Dryden, Kenora — all have fast food joints and big box stores.  Is this where the money up here has gone?

 

Day 3 – Flatlands

Manitoba’s highway signs, in French as well as English, remind us that Francophone Canada does not live only in Quebec.

Fields here are huge, seas of yellow sunflowers. Rolled up hay bales advance like extra-terrestrial creatures from a humanless horizon. Platoons of silver silos wait for the grain and seed trucks throwing up dust along the side roads.

Welcome to big agro, farms owned by companies. You don’t need to be a farmer to feel the enormity of the change this has brought. Wooden homesteads nestled into little groves of planted trees lie empty now.

Above it all the prairie sky is the most magnificent living canvas I have ever seen.

Everything here is big. Trains so long you never see the last car carry cylindrical black tanker cars, and goods containers piled one on top of the other. A man I meet later in Edmonton, whose company is involved with the oil industry, tells me some of the chemicals being transported are lethal. I thank God the land is flat, the rail lines straight.

(Two weeks later, while writing this, I read that a train, derailed and on fire near a rural Saskatchewan village, is belching toxic smoke. Heaven help the people and flora and fawna there. Heaven help us all.)

Prairie villages and towns each have their own character. How did Mozart get its name? Langeburg’s central park is decorated with a painted Volkswagen. A hand-painted sign at the entrance to Churchbridge, Saskatchewan boasts of the two NHL hockey players it has produced.

Langenburg’s park
We can’t find an affordable place to stay in Saskatoon so we keep driving, arriving late at North Battleford’s lovely Gold Eagle Lodge. Next door, in the casino, people are shoving money into one-armed bandits, sitting around dimly-lit poker tables. It’s 10 pm and the restaurant is nearly empty, but the Gold Eagle’s “pig’s wings” are among the finest restaurant ribs I have eaten.

 

Day 4 & The last Crossing

Winding through low, tawny hills, the North Saskatchewan River valley has been an awesome passageway as long as humans have travelled between the Rocky Mountains and Saskatchewan. As we follow it, heading for Alberta, gigantic farming and construction machines and filthy oil tanker trucks rule the road. We are glad when Edmonton’s skyline appears.

The North Saskatchewan River cuts right through Edmonton. We walk along its banks. Readers welcome me and Cally’s Way. By the end of the festivities I am number two on the Journal’s fiction bestseller list, and it is time to head home.

Alberta’s southeastern cattle ranges come alive, thanks to Guy Vanderhaeghe’s historical novels, particularly The Last Crossing. Then, at Wild Horse, we find a lone guard defending Canada’s border.

Highways are under construction all across Canada and the United States. City exit ramps are clogged with cars, pick-up and transport trucks. At the Ambassador Bridge border crossing in Detroit trucks are lined up for more than a kilometer, engines idling.

Driving the last stretch, through acres and acres of new windmills in south-western Ontario, I try to make sense of what we have seen:

  • People we met everywhere on our trip were kind, generous-hearted, very different from each other. I feel grateful to live among them.
  • More and more stuff, some of it dangerous, is moving across our awesome landscape of lakes and forest, prairies and mountains. This is not healthy. Neither are our politics.
  • But how, I wonder, can Canadians struggling through windswept, six-month winters in isolated places, and working dawn to dusk in the growing season, find the strength or the time to relate to the lives of other Canadians thousands of kilometres away? How can an Albertan from Vermilion know what concerns someone trying to make a living in Windsor Ontario?

Canada became a country because the British needed to defend against incursions from the south. We forced the aboriginal peoples onto reserves, forged a federation of provinces and territories, built railways, and have been making it up as we go along ever since.

Today the Canada we cherish — clean air and water, freedom of speech and open debate, consumer choices — needs our protection. So please, wherever you live, get out and vote, but for people and parties that stand for a free, environmentally responsible Canada.

Peterborough City Council plans to build a bridge here.

Thanks for taking time to read this,
Jane

Travelling in Crete – The Food!

One morning, while I was writing Cally’s Way on my mountainside terrace, an old woman wearing a kerchief stopped by on her way to the steep vacant lot next door, where herbs and artichokes grow in profusion. Pulling a sprig of fennel out of a cloth pouch attached to her apron, she smiled.
“Very good with potatoes.” 

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I watched her spend the next half hour climbing, bending, squatting, reaching and twisting as she filled her bag with fresh greenery before walking back up the mountainside to prepare dinner. She is well into her eighties, a typical Cretan grandma.

Artichokes merit their own trip to the vacant lot. Cretans put them in casseroles but I can’t wait that long. Boil, then strip and dip is my method. The impossibly lush heart of this tough and prickly mountain plant needs only lemon juice or salted and peppered olive oil.

An artichoke from next door

At the bottom of the mountain fishermen bring their daily catches to the Plakias fish shop. You can eat fresh sea bream, sardines and other lovely fish, or squid, sometimes cuttlefish.  Or, why not buy a newspaper cornet of shrimps? Poached for a couple of minutes, they still hold the flavour of the sea. 

Local lettuce, tomatoes, onions, or a bag of horta (a mixture of greens) and a bottle of local Cretan olive oil are available anywhere. Add a $6-bottle of wine from Sitia, on Crete’s north coast, and Presto, you have one of the tastiest, healthiest, most economical dinners in the world!

Cuttlefish stew – Yum!

Then there is the meat. Lambs gambol about on the mountainsides, and a few days before Easter shotgun blasts make clear the connection between raising and eating animals. Roasting lamb on an outdoor spit is a Greek tradition that goes back thousands of years.

Why is lamb on a spit so good, I asked my friend Nikos, who ran Nikos Souvlaki in Plakias for many years.


“Because, where was this lamb three weeks ago? Out on the mountainside eating oregano, thyme, rosemary!”  (Those who have read my new novel, Cally’s Way, will recognise this interchange.)


One of the best places to find this meal is at Le Vieux Moulin Taverna in the inland town of Agyroupoli. 


If you want a gastronomic treat and have a few extra Euros, drive up to Milia, high in the western White Mountains. A 16th Century village, Milia was built as a summer pasturing place and then abandoned until World War II, when it  served as a hiding place for its families during the Germans’ brutal occupation of Crete. After the war it was abandoned again until two of its owner families rebuilt the village as a totally organic, locally sustainable mountain resort. A two-minute video here will give you a tour.

Milia in spring, from a hiking trail

Milia features in my novel Cally’s Way. How could it not, when the book intertwines the story of Cally, a young woman trying to find a way to make a life in a world that promises very little security, with that of her grandmother Callisto, a runner in the Cretan Resistance, who lived in a high mountain village? A story summary and reviews are here. Read a sample chapter here (click on cover.)

And happy eating, wherever you are!

Why not share your experiences by commenting below?
Thanks for visiting,
Jane

Travelling in Crete – The World War II Story

Crete’s World War II story interests readers of Cally’s Way because it is told from the point of view of women. 

Buy HERE or HERE  

On May 20, 1941, when hundreds of German paratroopers floated down out of Crete’s blue morning sky in the Second World War’s first airborne invasion, most of the island’s men were away fighting with the Greek army on the mainland. Only a few thousand Allied troops from Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and the local people were there to defend Crete. Grandfathers fought with ancient swords left over from the Turkish wars, grandmothers with pitchforks. Women hoisted rifles, manned machine guns. 

Knives and dishes used in WWII. Plates have swastika on bottom.

Twelve days later the swastika was flying in Crete but, situated in the eastern Mediterranean, south of Europe, north of Africa, just west of the Middle East, this island has been invaded again and again for more than two thousand years. Even its monks were militant resistance fighters. 

Callisto in Cally’s Way is fictitious, but the hair raising submarine rescues at Limni Beach, just below Preveli Monastery, really happened. And so did so much else in the book. Teenaged boys and girls became messengers, nurses, hiding and helping Allied soldiers who were trapped on the island. When they were caught, whole villages suffered gruesome reprisals.

Limni Beach from cliff top.

Unsung Cretan WWII heroes must include the girl who carried food past German patrols to two Australians hiding in the Koutaliotis Gorge, and the girl who rowed a British soldier fifty miles out to Gavdos, an uninhabited island off the coast. Machine gun fire, strafing the boat from the air, opened the soldier’s side. The girl made him lie in the sea water flooding into the boat, to stop the bleeding and keep the wound clean.

Seventy three years later, travelling in Crete, you’ll find old ladies dressed in black out on the mountainsides, filling pouches attached to their aprons with horta, edible greens. They were there; they remember.


You’ll also find busloads of German tourists hiking, swimming, frequenting the tavernas, bringing badly needed Euros into the Cretan economy. How do the Cretans feel about this?


The elderly curator of Sougia’s war museum, who fought as a teenager, smiled when I asked him:


“Those Germans are not these Germans.”  

Pragmatic #forgiveness: what an example for so many parts of the world right now!

Tell me what you think. Comment below, or on FB at Jane Bow’s Novels, or on Twitter @JaneBow2
Thanks for visiting me here,
Jane

Travelling in Crete: a novelist’s thoughts (1)

One of the reasons it takes 12 years to write a novel (Cally’s Way) is that you fall in love with the place where it is set, in my case Crete. If you travel there this summer, go off the beaten track. And prepare to come back changed.

Crete’s south coast, a land of myth and history

The first time I went to Crete, in 2001, I knew nothing, except that:
a) it is the southernmost Greek island and therefore, hopefully, was warm in March, and
b) it was home to the peaceful pre-Greek Minoan culture that worshipped the Great Goddess and produced world renown statues of her, alabaster pottery and gold jewellery.  

My teenaged daughter and I rented a mountainside apartment overlooking the sea in Myrthios, away from tourist resorts along the main, north coast highway. In the mornings I holed up in the kitchen, meditating then making notes on what I was reading, thinking, seeing, feeling, with no idea why. 

My daughter sat on the balcony working on her correspondence courses or reading The Cretan Runner, a page-turner of a war memoir by George Psychoundakis, who was a shepherd until World War II, when hundreds of German paratroopers floated down out of the sky. During their brutal occupation of the island, the Cretans mounted a powerful, imaginative Resistance, working with British commandos hiding in the mountains.  

In the afternoons we drove our tiny Fiat up hair-raising, unguard-railed mountain roads, looking for the villages Psychoundakis described, imagining the stories he told of unnamed, unknown heroes, some of them boys and girls.

Sometimes we explored ruined Minoan palaces. King Minos (who owned the mythical Minotaur) built his famous palace at Knossos, but it‘s always clogged with tourist buses. I much prefer Phaistos, near the south coast, where the first linear writing was discovered on the Phaistos disk. It is so easy to imagine the famous bull jumping spectacles there, in a stone courtyard still clearly preserved 4,000 years later.

The ancient stone block archive at Phaistos

If the day was hot, we explored beaches along the south coast, swimming in the Libyan Sea beside the 14th Century Venetian fort at Frangocostello, or at Skinaria, a beach tucked away behind the headlands that nudists (now prohibited) favoured, or at fabulous, palm studded Preveli, once known as Limni Beach, where two daring submarine rescues of Allied troops took place. (See Cally’s Way.)

Preveli beach from the headland above.

I spoke no Greek but for some reason, smelling the sea air and the herbs on the mountainsides, watching the clouds over Plakias Bay, listening to the staccato rise and fall of the language in the villages, nodding hello to black-clad women of my age with whom I had nothing in common, I felt utterly, viscerally at home. 

Why? Was it because my formative years were spent in Spain, at the other end of the Mediterranean? 
Too thin a reason, by itself.

Was it because the Greek myths, many of which were born on this island, and the Greek language lie at the root of our Western civilization? Psychology, archeology, logic, democracy — so many of our fundamental social concepts are defined by Greek words. 
No. If this was the reason, why doesn’t every English speaking Western tourist feel at home here?

An ancient olive tree lives on the mountainside

Was it something less nameable then? Something to do with genetic predisposition or re-incarnation? 
Hard to conjure that, but when I was a child in Spain my father used to take me to look at the paintings in Madrid’s Prado. My favourite artist, at age nine, was El Greco. Not until I went to Crete did I find out that El Greco was Cretan. 

Life itself is a miracle, so who knows what the full answer is. What I do know is that:
a) the great power of love features in all my novels,
b) I love this island, its people, its rock, its air, its sea, and
c) love and creativity are two faces of the same force. 

Flowers in a Cretan ditch

One morning, that first year in Crete, the World War II part of Cally’s Way dropped into my head fully formed. I have been returning to the island to write every year since then. 

And now, published this spring, the book’s characters have come to life in the very place where they were born! Tourists from all over Europe can find Cally’s Way at Carol’s Workshop in Myrthios. Happy me!

Cally’s Way now on sale at Carol’s Workshop.

What makes a place feel like home? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Comment below, or on Facebook at Jane Bow’s Novels, or on Twitter @JaneBow2.

Thanks for visiting me here,
Jane

Birth Of A Book

A newborn book is a touchable, lovable miracle.

Coming in March from Iguana Books

Conception
Quick and wiggly, the sperm of an idea lodges itself in the moist, fertile ground of a writer’s self, often when she least expects it. It then takes over her life. She might try to deny it, plunging into floor scrubbing, cupboard reorganizing, texting, Facebooking, Tweeting and emailing. But deep inside her storywords are multiplying, taking shape, beginning to move.

Cally’s Way, my new historical self-discovery novel, was conceived one morning in the kitchen of the apartment my daughter and I had rented for six weeks on the south coast of Crete.

I had been rising early every day, meditating and then writing random notes on what I was reading, seeing, thinking, feeling. In the afternoons we would drive up terrifying, guardrail-free mountain roads to visit villages where brave people, some of them teenagers like my daughter, had found ingenious ways to resist the Nazis’ brutal occupation of this ancient island during World War II. Then we would come back to Plakias beach. Behind the headland at the end of the bay archeologists have found 100,000-year old human tools.

Plakias Bay

Sun, rock, olive oil and wine, stories of glory and horror, all of these streams of consciousness coalesced that morning in the kitchen into a force that, holding me in its grip for the next twelve years, would become Cally’s Way.

Gestation
Words, like cells, grow according to some kind of pattern — a novel has to have characters and a story — but what characters? Which story? So many choices, of narrative and scene, style, setting and timing, of tone and pace and nuance, implication, resonance, discord, lie waiting in the place just beyond knowing. Storytelling guru Robert McKee says never be satisfied with your first idea. Sometimes he’s right, sometimes wrong. No one can tell a writer how to work.

Gestation of a novel is not seamless. Structures often sprout extraneous arms or legs and lopping them off, when characters are now as close as friends, is painful. Sometimes the heart of the story is so faint all you can hear is your memory of it.

So you get help. You also feed and nurture your creative energy and the emerging life and gradually, as construction continues, glimmers of the book’s soul appear.

My bulletin board while I wrote Cally’s Way

Labour
Oh boy. Who needs the endless hours of metaphorical gut-clenching, back wrenching contractions, pushing, pushing the baby book out into a world that has no reason to care whether it lives or dies?

At least now, in the birth of both babies and books, we have some choices: doctor or midwife? Hospital or home? Rather than exposing our innermost sensitivities to agents and publishers whose choices are dictated by marketing algorithms, many writers are now opting for new publishers who are literary gatekeepers, but also offer the author some control over this critical part of the birth.

Iguana Books

Delivery
Iguana Books will publish Cally’s Way in March. It is my third novel and thanks to the high quality of editing, production design and marketing expertise I have received, all this baby’s fingers and toes are intact. According to advance reviews, there is also lots of colour in its cheeks and for this, like all creators at the moment of birth, I am eternally grateful.

Birth Notices
“Jane’s love for Crete, its people and customs shines through and draws the reader in. Her extensive knowledge about the history of the island adds breadth and depth to the passion and romance that we find in Cally’s Way. The questions posed by Cally’s journey of self discovery are ones that any reader will be able to connect with. This book is highly recommended not only for those who are already familiar with the island of Crete but for those who have yet to visit.”
Kate Brusten, Editor, Rethymnon Bugle

“I loved Cally’s Way, not just the fascinating history and stunning island backdrop, but also the well-drawn, endearing characters of Cally, the beautiful but troubled Oliver and Wrecks, his dog. An engaging and compelling read.”
Hilary Boyd, bestselling U.K. author of Thursdays In the Park

“Author Jane Bow gives readers an engaging and deeply poignant picture of the Greek and Cretan resistance under Nazi occupation, but she also gives her readers an equally engaging story of a young woman’s transformation through hard-won knowledge and love.  Cally’s Way resonates deeply…”
Robert J. Begiebing, award-winning novelist and Professor of
English Emeritus, Southern New Hampshire University

Dante & The Chinese Backpacks

Many of my readers are in China. This blog’s for you.

A huge black and grey snake with green lines running down its sides is coiled around a ceiling on the second floor of Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario. The snake is made of Chinese children’s backpacks, each one representing the life of one of the 5,000 children who died when their shoddily built schools collapsed in an earthquake. China’s government doesn’t like to talk about this tragedy. It also doesn’t like Ai Weiwei, the artist who made the snake, who has been jailed for speaking out, and is now being kept from attending openings of his art shows in Europe and Canada. 

To see this extraordinary snake go to: http://www.ago.net/ai-weiweis-snake-ceiling

I saw the snake on my way into an exhibition of 14th Century Florentine Art. A hand-illustrated edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy stopped me in my tracks. Made a few years after his death in 1321, this copy of his world famous poem has been carefully preserved for nearly 700 years. When he created it he was in exile.
 

Written in Italian, the language of the street, The Divine Comedy takes its readers down, with Dante and the Roman poet Virgil, into The Inferno’s seven circles of hell, where some of the public figures of Dante’s day are among those gruesomely tortured by sins, such as greed and avarice, that consume them. Dante and Virgil then travel up, through cold, grey Purgatorio — a new concept in Dante’s day, where less serious sinners must suffer until they can achieve redemption —  into heavenly, love-filled Paradiso. 

Dante was no more popular with his government than Weiwei is with his, but his poem was copied again and again. Anyone could read it and they did, until it became one of the great foundations of western literature.

To see a beautifully illustrated, 14th Century copy of dissident Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, right after marvelling at 21st Century dissident Ai Weiwei’s sensational snake, gave me hope in the unstoppable power of art.

Once, thirty years ago, Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence was battling soul-destroying censorship of her brilliant novel, The Diviners, in her hometown. For the second time.

“Why does this keep happening?” I whined. The Diviners was a Canadian literary classic. “Can’t we do something to make it stop?”

“No,” she told me, “all we can do is keep on standing at the barricades (of repression.)”

She’s right. Political and religious ideologies everywhere keep trying to smother inconvenient truths and points of view. I give thanks for the freedom I have to tap out these words today. It’s more than Canadian government scientists, or Chinese artists, or writers in many countries enjoy. 

Snakes shed their skins and grow, however, and governments have no choice but to coil through Dante’s journey. While blessed art, in all its forms, goes on refusing to be silenced.

Mexico papers – Conclusion

Note: This is the last of a 4-part series. Scroll down to read parts 1-3.

Our little blue Datsun climbed through the mountains of central Mexico to San Miguel de Allende, and I continued to record the odyssey:

“A national monument, this beautiful little town is a perfect mesh of old and new. The people who have lived here for centuries are among the best artisans in the world, says renown Canadian artist Leonard Brooks.”

Leonard and his wife Reva, an acclaimed photographer, had built a house and studio full of wondrous collages, stone carvings, paintings. Everything was art, every plant in the garden, every stone around the pond carefully chosen, their fence a living sculpture made of cactuses.

“Gave the Brooks’ our corn cob pipes by way of thanks.”

Two days later we arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas, the capital of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, looking for a Canadian potter who had married a Lacandon Indian and gone to live with his isolated tribe in the rainforest near the Guatemalan border. The widow of Danish anthropologist Frans Blom, who discovered the Lacandon tribe in 1951, provided guided access to the tribe, but she wanted nothing to do with two would-be Canadian journalists.

Undaunted, we set off down a long dirt road to Ocosingo, the last town at the edge of the jungle, where we had been told a man had a plane. That night a parade of blue, red, emerald green insects crossed our hotel room floor, drawn by the overhead lightbulb. Watching, terrified to get out of bed, we noted that they did not climb. Next morning they were gone.

The pilot’s little Cessna sat at on a grass runway at the edge of town. We were in luck. He was taking a load of palm leaves somewhere and was willing to drop us off near the Lacandon village of Na’Ha. We would only have a couple of hours there as clouds were closing in. I watched him use a wooden ruler, the kind I used in grade school, to check the level in his plane’s fuel tank but was too excited to be afraid.

The Lacandon Indians lived in the traditions their people, the Mayans, had espoused for thousands of years. Gorge, who heard the plane and came running to the landing strip cut out of the jungle, wore only a canvas shift. His shoulder-length hair was bushy and black and he had the most extraordinary feet. Larger than a basketball player’s they gripped the mud, bounced off sharp stones, sprang up the path. Behind him, in our hiking boots, we struggled to keep up.

Na’Ha was a collection of thatched huts, but the Canadian potter was not home. Having gone to Canada for a visit, she had been barred by the Mexican government from returning.

Chan K’in, her husband and the kind, charismatic son of the chief, spoke Spanish however, and we spent our precious hours learning about this gentle tribe that eschewed modern civilization, preferring to use farming techniques that go back thousands of years to eke out a natural living in the rainforest. Kneeling with him, we watched one of the women pound out tortillas and then cook them over the fire for us. The only sign of the potter was an Inuit calendar hanging beside the pots on the wall of her and Chan K’in’s hut — a strange and beautiful cultural connection.

The rains held off long enough for us to fly back to Ocosingo but then the skies opened. Torrential rain pounded the roof of our little blue Datsun, and turned the road back to civilization to mud. Then the windshield wipers stopped working.

Picture jungle on both sides, no sign of human habitation anywhere, driving blind behind a curtain of water. Hiking boots have shoe laces however. We tied one to each wiper, then brought the other end of our laces in through our side windows. Yelling “Pull!” every few seconds, operating the wipers on manual, we made it to the highway.

It was time to go home. By the time we reached northern Mexico, we had one traveller’s cheque left. If we cashed it in Mexico we would lose money twice on the exchanges. But if we didn’t, where would we sleep? Not at a Mexican police station!

The answer appeared on the edge of the town we were in: a small hospital. Surely murderers and rapists would not hang out in its parking lot? The front door was locked but there were lights on inside. I knocked. No answer. I knocked again. Again. The door opened a crack. Inside was a tiny man, the night watchman. Clearly very frightened, waving a revolver, he asked what I wanted.

I told him we were two Canadian girls who needed his protection. Could we sleep in his parking lot? His chest expanded. Growing taller, he waggled the gun at the ceiling.

“Don’t worry,” he smiled, “I will keep you safe.” And he did.

The Lacandon story and several others were bought by Chatelaine. The Leonard Brooks story sold to The Toronto Star and Montreal Gazette.

Forty years later, I have published articles, plays, stories, books, and sitting here writing this, perhaps it is time Les and I thanked him and all the other beautiful souls we had the good fortune to know and record in The Mexico Papers.

If you would like to visit me in my study, go to http://studiosnapshotsblog.com/
where Judy Douglas hosts a fascinating blog about artists’ work spaces.
Let me know your thoughts, and thanks for reading,
Jane

The Mexico papers – Part 3

“DO NOT DRIVE AT NIGHT IN MEXICO.” Over and over the travel guide warned that it was not safe. If hitting stray cows, pigs, horses wandering unlit highways didn’t kill us, an accident would embroil us in bribery. Bandits planted carcasses on the road too. But we had to be in Mexico City, 750 miles away, by tomorrow. My Mexico Papers, typed on a salmon pink portable typewriter in the back of our Datson hatchback home record what happened next:

“We find a nice big truck that can do 50 mph and follow it. So far, in daylight, we have seen trucks passing on curves, three abreast on mountain roads, cars pushed onto the shoulders. There are more trucks than cars. And abandoned restaurants, gas stations, little tumble down huts and adobe shacks. Lights go on in them as it gets dark.”

The truck drivers we were following kept signaling us to pass them, so when they pulled off at a roadside restaurant, we did too, to introduce ourselves. Two men in their early twenties, they said they would be delighted to run interference for us and, deep into the night our Datsun rode safely behind their tractor-trailer bulk. Until, in the middle of nowhere, the truck pulled over. 

One of the drivers came back to explain that a car ahead of them had hit a cow. A family needed a ride to the nearest town. They would all fit into the truck’s sleeper space behind the seats, if one of the drivers came with us. Les and I conferred. Was this the scam we had just been reading about, a one-way ticket to rape and death?

In the end, in moments of crisis you have to trust your intuition. I moved into the passenger seat and, in the safe darkness inside our little car, the driver told us about himself and his country. Mexico in 1972 was ruled by a repressive regime. He and his partner were university student who has been expelled for being at a meeting to commemorate the death of their friend at the 1968 Olympics.

“He tells us to beware of Mexican bandidos and terrorists. And be more careful with truck drivers, he says, because many are drugados, especially those driving gas trucks. Stay away from the police. Driving through the night, my mind brings to life the stories he is telling.

“After the truck drops off the family and they buy us dinner, we pull into a truck stop at 1 am. They park us in the shelter of their truck. Our friend sleeps in a hammock under his truck. The other driver sleeps inside the cab. They tell us to yell if we are disturbed… A few hours later we are off again, 250 miles left to the capital. We leave our friends with much honking and waving. We don’t even know their names.”

Forty years later I wonder where are our saviors are now.  May their lives now be full of richness.

Later in the morning “a man crosses the divided highway on a burro. So far we have dodged burros, cows, pigs, horses, chickens and dogs on this road.” 

By dinner time, after a Mexico City traffic ticket delivered on the back of an envelope and paid on the spot in cash, we were luxuriating in marble bathrooms and white fleecy towels at my parents’ hotel. The Mexico Papers were not shared.

Please feel free to comment below or through my Contact page, and join me next month for the trip south into Mexico’s rainforest to meet the Stone Age Lacandon Indians.
Thanks for visiting,
Jane

The Mexico Papers – Part 2

Two people living in a ’72 Datsun hatchback, sleeping in police station parking lots, required creative attention to personal space. The front passenger seat, tipped as far back as it would go, was Les’ domain. Pushing the back of the driver’s seat forward against the steering wheel, and then collapsing both back seats gave me a head-in-the-trunk bed.

Crawling into it through the hatchback, I lowered the trunk with a piece of string and tied it, open about two inches, to the clasp. Now I could keep a secret eye on our perimeter, and breathe. If a dangerous perpetrator escaped custody, all I had to do was pull the string to lock us in.

Driving through Texas, I was scared:

“Texans are proud of their lone star state,but, “saw a man in jeans and a check shirt wearing a holster and gun and bullets and a Stetson, no uniform… A lady in the drugstore told us they’ll rip open your car doors and yank you out at a red light in the city… Stove is broken, cooked hot dogs over a garbage fire on a rest stop barbecue grill. Have a lot of garbage by now.”

Does this explain why we went home for the night with Louise after meeting her, Leroy and Paul in a Waxahachie diner?

“Leroy has been married four times. Paul’s wife is gone. He is old, and he’s a great dancer. Louise, 55, is a widow, a really amazing woman whom all the town kids call Mom. She now goes with Leroy, but she and Paul are real show outs at the club where they go dancing… Slept in a real bed. Louise made us Texan biscuits with cream gravy, eggs, bacon, pork chops and coffee for breakfast.”

No intuition was needed to sense these people’s kind generosity. They were also rednecks, “their prejudice open and deep, like hunger…”

We had to reach Mexico City in time to meet my parents — their Canadian embassy contacts would have freelance story ideas — but we had no idea how far south of the border it was. Finding a map finally, 100 miles north of Laredo, we discovered that we still had 850 miles to drive.

“We have to make Laredo tonight… Decide to find a motel on the border side of town. Suddenly there is a bridge. We pay the toll and cross, see the sign ‘Rio Grande’ halfway across. Two policemen are chatting in the middle of the bridge. Then the signs are all in Spanish. People are yelling and blocking the street, cops at every stop light. We are in Mexico with no insurance, no tourist cards! There was no border. We panic, pay another toll and cross back into the U.S. A border guard asks us how long we have been out of the country.”

A long night with Mexican truck drivers, a plane ride into the southern jungle: join me for The Mexico Papers – Part 3 on March 14.
Thanks for visiting,
Jane

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