Monday, August 30, 2010

Franz Schurmann and the Shaman

Franz Schurmann and the Shaman

            Everything written about the learnedness and perspicacity of our late friend and colleague, Franz Schurmann, founder of Pacific News Service, is absolutely true.  What I also valued in Franz is that he believed in magic.
            Several years ago on a reporting trip to Central America, Franz visited our family in Antigua, Guatemala, where we lived for ten years.  In desultory after-dinner conversation, I mentioned the name of a comadrona, or midwife, whom I sometimes visited at the foot of a volcano called Fire, Fuego.  Then in her 70s, Basilia had delivered a large percentage of her village’s inhabitants, and she was generous about sharing talk of customs, herbal cures, the recent past.  Sometimes she allowed me to watch as a client came with a query, existential or quotidian, and Basilia twirled an old pair of scissors in a shallow basket, divining an answer.  Since the age of fifteen, villagers said, she had exhibited a special don, an inborn gift, not only a midwife’s, but a shaman’s skill.
            The conversation with Franz at our table moved on, until we finally rose and walked across the courtyard to the door.
“Good night, Franz.  See you tomorrow.”
 “My mother is not well,” he said.
            “Oh.” I felt taken aback by news that seemed to come from nowhere. “I’m sorry.”
            “The woman, in the village,” he said.  A long moment later, I realized he referred to the Maya Indian, Basilia.
            “Could we go to her?”
            This was not Franz’s renowned and insatiable curiosity talking, but the voice of a son, well into middle age, asking on behalf of an elderly mother. Franz intuited Basilia might have special strength, or the ear of the gods. Or represent one more way of sending positive mojo to his mom.  What he did not think was that the idea was ridiculous, or unworthy of him.
             Basilia had no telephone.  When she opened the split-log door to her yard next day, however, she appeared unsurprised.  Franz didn’t need me to translate; Spanish was one of the dozen languages he spoke.  We followed the thin woman across the dirt yard, chickens running underfoot.  She removed an apron and flung it across a line, becoming a figure that might have stepped out of a scene a thousand years old. She wore a square huipil blouse, handwoven with chevrons and circles in bold purples and reds, long indigo skirt and caites, rude sandals.
Inside a windowless shack, Basilia swept back a wisp of gray hair and set to “the work.”  Franz handed over white votive candles we had bought on the way into town, and tiny incense cones.  Basilia lit all, and as we stood, prayed in her native K’akchikel Maya language, gesturing in communication with figures of saints and holy pictures on a makeshift altar.
            “Not yet,” she said to Franz when she finished.  The candles had melted too quickly.   We would have to return for another session in order for “the work” to be effective, she said.
            On the next visit, Basilia broke an egg into a glass of water to read the ways its white fell and streamed.  This procedure produced no alarming news, but the candles – again, they burned too fast.  My cynical side suspected my dear friend, the shaman, of requiring more certitude than usual about Franz’s case, because of course, each time we came I brought a gift of food, and Franz pressed money into her hand.  But Franz said he bore no suspicion, and agreed to a third meeting, which Basilia said should do the trick.
            In three days time we were to travel to the shrine of Maximon, a kind of counter-saint revered by ordinary people but unsanctioned by any church.  Maximon was big league, where Basilia seemed to think she could do “the work” best. This was joy to Franz’ ears, an adventure, a journey under the surface of things few travelers come to make.  It was the kind of journey Franz liked best.
 Nevertheless, we worried that even a trip to Maximon could be sabotaged by quickly melting candles, wax that did not aguanta, bear up. Once begun, no one wanted to leave the enterprise unfinished. But in a couple of days, Franz would have a plane to catch.
            “Freeze them,” said my husband.
            “What?” I couldn’t follow.
            “Of course,” said Franz, without hesitation.  “We freeze the candles, and they’ll take long to melt.”
            Franz was not above assisting the supernatural.
            Inside the shrine of Maximon, smoke filled the air from hundreds of candles set up before the icon, a top-hatted, life-size figure seated in a stiff-backed chair, smoking a huge cigar, bottles of moonshine at his feet. On a big metal table, the candles glowed in colors reflecting the intentions of believers: yellow on behalf of children, for instance, red for love.  A hand-written sign forbade black candles, warning against the desire to wish someone bad luck.  Black candles outnumbered the others.
            Basilia had worn her good, bright huipil. She spoke to the wooden Maximon, throwing cane liquor on him from a bottle. Franz handed her the candles; she took her time lighting the wicks, eying their flames.  Franz stood nearby, watching his shaman, observing the others.  The smoke finally got to my asthmatic lungs, and I headed for fresh air.
            When they emerged from the shrine, Franz and Basilia were talking animatedly.  “How did it go?” I asked.
            Bueno,” said Basilia.  “Good.”
            Franz squinted in the sun, but he was smiling, extending his arm to help the shaman down the steps.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bothering with the Commotion -- A Polish Wedding



            My cousin wears white, even though she and Piotr had been married in a civil ceremony six months ago.  “Here I am a bride almost 50 years old,” she says in the vestibule, as if suddenly embarrassed to cause everyone the trouble of attending a formal wedding.
            But this is her first marriage, she sparkles, and I tell her that is all that matters. The bridegroom, a widower with three daughters, looks respectably nervous. He allows his girls, dressed as bridesmaids, to fuss over his collar, and place a pink rose in his suit jacket pocket..
            Inside the church on Chicago’s North Side, women compare amber.  “Mexican?” asks the mother of the bride, raising a young girl’s hand to examine a bracelet.  “Polska,” says the girl, as others approve.  We finger our necklaces.  Polska, polska,” we say, Poland being the only legitimate provenance of the genuine article.
            The organ fills the church with a hymn. I hear a woman’s voice in the pew behind us whisper to a neighbor, “I don’t see why they bother with all this commotion, since they’re already married.”  I know the person behind the voice. She is not Polish.
            The wedding procession slowly descends the aisle of the century-old church, walking through variegated light from stained glass windows.  During the Catholic Mass, the priest takes one end of the narrow white stole he wears about his neck, and wraps it around the joined hands of the couple, who face each other to repeat the words of promise.  I would like to tell you what else the clergyman said that brought tears, and a couple of rounds of laughter, to the church, but my Polish is so poor I just didn’t get it.
                Hours later, in a neighborhood ballroom, guests shimmer in cocktail dress under crystal chandeliers. Older relatives pour shots for all  from vodka bottles on white-clothed tables. I know the homes in Poland from which some here come. Small, fourth floor walk-ups in Soviet-era apartment blocks. Farm houses where bags of wheat lie stored in the attic, and in the cellar, potatoes.  Celebrations like this must ooze glamour and joy.

            And food.  Thick, fresh mushroom soup, slaw and chopped beets with more horseradish than an ordinary mortal might consume in a year. Jacketed waiters bring oval main dishes of hearty winter food -- never mind that it’s August. We pass them around, commenting aloud on which aunt or grandmother had made a special version of just such a dish: pork with baked apples; garlic mashed potatoes surrounded by slices lightly fried; tender veal; steamed carrots and cauliflower, pirogy stuffed with potato; steak rolls on barley.  We toast with the shots, and drink clear rose, or spumante.

            After the couple’s first waltz, dancing swings into high gear.  The singers turn everything into Polish, including Lady Gaga.  Babies are passed to others as parents hit the floor. The noise is deafening, so men and women in their 80s and 90s answer questions never asked, conversing pleasantly as ice cream in glass bowls appears at each place.  Meanwhile, a train of waiters is wending its way to a serve-yourself section, carrying a dozen more kinds of desserts, like apricot and raspberry kolatchkis, cheesecake, huge chocolate truffle drops, dark and white.             
            The atmosphere of a Polish wedding, whether here in Chicago or in Krakow, is a mix of stories told by the old, and memories in the making by the young.  It was at such a wedding that my grandfather taught me to polka, and to waltz.  I remember the thrill as if it were yesterday.

            At my cousin’s wedding, while most adults sat about recovering from dessert, children filled the dance floor and the bridal couple wandered the tables greeting guests. Meanwhile, waiters carried in more and different foods for the vodka-drinkers and anyone else to pick up at will: salmon; egg halves with caviar, black and red; crakowski; ham; salmon roe; polish sausage.  We left before midnight because my daughter had an early flight. The Slavic tunes were just beginning.
            There was no easy way to reach the bride and groom, so I waved goodbye across the room to my cousin in her white satin dress. Malagoshia and Piotr waved back, looking tired but ecstatic.  The memorable day, I supposed, was the reason a civil ceremony had not been enough, and they had bothered with all the commotion. 

Sunday, August 8, 2010

It's the Sauce

Hello--Thanks for coming back.  
I know I said GlobeWatch would return in June, 
and apologize for being a little late.  
But the book is finished!  
Meanwhile, I'm thrilled to be back at the blog.
                                                                              ---Mary Jo

It’s the Sauce

            The great rainforest land once called Gran Peten has never been known as a gourmet’s paradise. Whatever might be plucked from trees, or shot with gun or bow, is what landed on plates from southern Mexico’s Chiapas state, across Guatemala’s northern Peten to Belize. Beans and rice might accompany deer, rodent or bird, but roughly the same kind of meals appeared on the menus of indigenous Maya, and after the sixteenth century, of Europeans who came to stay.  Things haven’t changed much.
            The first petenero food I tasted was tepesquintle, a 40-lb rat that roams the jungle at night.  It didn’t taste like chicken.  It wasn’t gamey or beefy.  It tasted like nothing I had experienced before, rich without being heavy, meaty but light.  I ate under the unblinking stares of various antlered heads, hanging on the walls of a traveler’s restaurant that also served armadillo.  The cook told me she used the same sauce for both dishes. When I asked for the recipe, she straightened her spotted apron, placed hands on hips and recited the ingredients.  Like the best international chefs, she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, say how much of each.
                               Tepesquintle Rodent Sauce

Thyme, laurel, cumin, black pepper, garlic, green (or red) pepper, tomato, onion, V-8 juice, white wine, cinnamon, honey, consommé, saborin (like Accent).  For armadillo sauce, replace the wine with vinegar.
A few days later, I attended a gathering of twenty-five peasant farmers attempting to discover if oil operations caused their allergies and stunted harvests. Metallic odors from a refinery wafted among the benches and blackboards of the open-air meeting place.  When the pleasing aroma of black beans and garlic became stronger than the smell of gas, we knew it was time for lunch.
            At an outside sink we washed our hands using a gourd to  pour water.  We grabbed plastic bowls.  In a cooking shed a woman and her young daughter scooped out poor but hearty fare from metal pots, putting all into the single bowls: rice, beans, and whole potatoes fried in batter, swimming in a soupy sauce of herbs, tomato and onion.  We grabbed hot tortillas, the only utensils.  Honestly, it tasted great.
            Breakfast was always bread and coffee, dinner always rice and beans. The midday meal, however, was a series of tours de force, including one I never thought I would eat: beans, rice, and spaghetti in a tomato sauce, fresh of course, thickened with flour, tarted up with half-inch slices of hot dogs.
            In San Cristobal, the small and elegant colonial capital of Chiapas, sauces graced small and elegant meals, sometimes enjoyed at sidewalk tables on a cobblestone promenade.  In fact, the meals were peasants’ food, glorified with sauce.
Like squash flowers on a bed of sharp cheese, drizzled, or puddled, with liquefied black corn fungus.

Or molletes, refried beans spread on bread cut in triangles, or on halves of a bolillo  (a kind of dinner roll) topped with melted cheese (manchego is good), and finely-chopped tomato, spooned on to taste.

For breakfast, there might be cactus leaves (nopales) drained of their sticky juice, boiled and scrambled with eggs, or covered with Oaxaca cheese and green chile sauce. 

Too tired at night to think about sauces, I would simply ask for that wonderful stand-by made of day-old tortillas torn and sautéd with onion, chopped tomato and consommé, and topped with sliced avocado.   The best of all fast food: sopa de tortilla.
And what about red meat?
On a Sunday morning I drove on a bumpy oil company road into a rainforest area which was turning into cattle grazing land.  Some of the land belonged to drug lords using “ranches” as a screen for airstrips.  Some was in use by landless campesinos trying to scratch out a living.
I went to Mass in a small church in a forest settlement where the congregation was celebrating its local patron saint.  Afterward, we all gathered at outdoor tables to feast upon beef from a cow killed the night before.  The smell of the grilling meat was heavenly, but pieces were tough to eat, especially without knife or fork.  Some of us picked off bits and put them on plates for the elderly with few teeth.  For my own portion, I tore at each hunk, masticating until my jaw hurt.
“They must have picked the oldest cow in the pasture,” said one campesino.
I recognized the problem immediately. No sauce.