Monterrey, Mexico

La Silla

Monterrey is magical: it’s surrounded by spiky volcanic mountains, with one emblematic ragged crater, “La Silla”, looming close, and colorful favelas (but they’re not called that here) clustered around the foothills. The city is about Sydney-sized, with a beautiful old part (Barrio Antiguo, “old quarter”) in the middle, which looks half-demolished during the day but comes crazy-alive at night. Lots of live music, it’s hot, and everybody and everything is beautiful to look at, to listen to, even to smell.

The show here is part of a big Unesco-sponsored cultural extravaganza called The Forum. It has already been going for months and has more to run. Apparently it’s the brainchild of a mayor of Barcelona, who wanted to do something to counter all the intolerance that has been poisoning the world in recent years. Let’s hope it works.

It’s on the site of an enormous extinct iron foundry (La Fundidora), with stadiums indoor and out, exhibition halls, kooky performance and art spaces, bizarre water features, lots of big events, many free, always packed. I already saw Bebel Gilberto and Angelique Kidjo in some little windows.

We’re in a tent with incredibly dangerous bleacher-style seating for 1600. Getting the show into it amid the chaos of the Forum and Mexico itself, plus the language thing, was a big job.

I’m doing my lines in Spanish (with some cheatnotes); my spoken Spanish is along the lines of “me want go him bus of town, excuse me”, but I can almost understand the lowbrow television.


And speaking of lowbrow, a mob of us went to the wrestling last night – just indescribably stupid and hilarious. Got a mask, of course.

There are many shops full of religious iconography, bizarre Mary statues and bleeding Jesuses, a lot of it centered around Our Lady of Guadaloupe, i.e. the hallucination of an adolescent girl a couple of centuries ago.

There is also a surprising number of shops here selling orthopedic underwear, off-white canvassy-looking trusses and girdles and the like, but I can’t imagine that there are so many people with hernias. It seems that in a Catholic country, one needs a medical certificate to wear lingerie.

Here there are only señoritas guaperrimas (the intensifing suffix is local slang) who seem to transform directly into respectable señoras at a certain (youngish) age. This is a Catholic country with strong family ties; to meet a girl you must first meet her mother, who is usually nearby. Even then, her brothers will kill you with knives if you try anything.

A lot of people of both sexes actually do go dancing with their madres in tow.


S. is a close friend who was in the circus for the last five years or so and left recently to get married in Ethiopia, from where she came as a refugee about ten years ago. Just after her wedding, her brother, whom she has been trying to get out of a refugee camp in Egypt for the last few years, took his own life. The blame lies pretty squarely at the feet of the Australian immigration authorities, who alternated between stubborn refusal to follow their own (and U.N.) guidelines and plain bungling – for example a two-year delay caused by mixing this brother up with another one who lives in Canada (they’re are all the same, right?). We’re all a bit shaken up.


Today is Dia de los Muertos, which in this part of the country (near the border with Texas) has got all mixed up with Halloween. They have a saying here: “Mexico: so far from heaven, so close to the United States”.

As you probably know, it’s a day when people go to the graveyards not to mourn but to party (in Spanglish, “pode”, pronounced “po-day”, or something like that), giving alcohol and cigarettes to the dead to lure them back to the world of the living; but just for the day: they must then be carefully rounded up by a singer in a special mask to make sure they all get back on the bus to oblivion. The whole thing is humorous and irreverent; apparently people actually dance on the graves of their own loved ones, although I have not seen this.

Costumes range from traditional funny skeleton suits and witches and zombies, through naughty doctor-and-nurse, pirate and Arab, to downright Village People. You eat special bread – pan de muerto – and drink a lot. It’s been going for three days now.


Last night I ate the head of a goat – I kid you not – at a chain restaurant called “El Rey del Cabrito” (“Goat King”). I knew I had asked for head (straight face here), but I didn’t really believe that my meal would be presented intact – eyes bulging, tongue protruding, skull pre-trepanned for easy access. A little mind-control was required to start in, but of course it was delicious, surprisingly not like chicken, but a tripe lobster, consisting of many small offally tidbits concealed in various bony cavities. My particular faves were the corpus collosum and the lining of the nasal septum.


It’s hard – but important – not to laugh at the local cops. As the winners and main beneficiaries of various drug wars, they are heavily armed and dress like Darth Vader, but insist on getting about on a variety of comic miniature vehicles: Segways, cool-for-kids BMX bikes, pillion on little gaily-colored electric scooters, four of them in a teensy underpowered canal punt with a cute little fringed awning and machine guns sticking out everywhere.


Apparently, the mail takes a month if you are lucky, and a fax costs US$50.

I received 14 copies of the same text message, at 28 minutes past the hour for fourteen hours. Then it stopped.


Gratuitous exclamation marks seem to have become the text equivalent of canned laughter!!!! – I hold funniness to be self-evident.


There are two hotels at the Parque Fundidora, ours and the incongruous Holiday Inn, both full of artists from all over the world. The thing about Spanish is it’s spoken in so many different places, and that’s part of what holds this whole event together. Mine is still atrocious – I’ve been asking for “spider juice” every morning at breakfast (confusing “naranja” with “araña”), and I’m pretty sure I wished someone “Buenas nachos”.

You start speaking a kind of pre-translated English, like “Yesterday night I am dancing all of the night”, and can usually be understood. You have to watch your Aussie vowels – “wait” can come across as “white”, for example, to one’s horror.

The show is cranking along, always full and rowdy. There are a lot of other shows here, ranging from massive French outdoor pyrotechnical displays with 10-meter tall puppets and explosives, to tiny Vietnamese “labyrinth” shows, where you go through dark tunnels and are touched by invisible hands, and smell things.


Last night I dreamed we – that “we” of dreams which is not always clearly constituted – were gleefully sneaking about trying to get it on, but a large group of characters who seemed to represent someone’s family members were all over the place making it difficult, although this was part of the fun. In one incident I recall fairly clearly, we were standing nude on a window ledge outside a large room where said family was dining at a long table. We thought we could not be seen, but we had misjudged the the light, were seen, and giggled about it.

A couple of nights before that ( the moon was full, although I don’t believe that shit), I had a very crazy dream which began on a dry branch protruding from a cliff face in a valley of dinosaurs. The branch immediately broke and I plunged to my death. Unfazed, I became one of the other characters on the cliff and went into a nearby cowboy town to mourn the death. Someone offered me a tobacco-laden joint, when I realized I was dreaming and smoked it. I asked a character from the dream what her name was and was amused (I guess at my own witlessness) when she was stumped for an answer. I looked at my watch, which showed the correct time, and woke up.

I doubt that dreams really have the narrative they acquire as we recall them. They seem to evaporate from our memory until we solidify them by imposing a narrative on what is more likely a bunch of more-or-less non-sequential notions whose origin and degree of randomness is unknown, like the stories a child makes up and acts out using whatever random toys happen to be lying on the floor. This doesn’t mean that they don’t mean anything; but maybe the notions mean one thing and the narratives another?


A painter friend has a catchphrase about painting enhancing pot-smoking and not the reverse. I always used to enjoy playing stoned – we used to call it the “graphic equalizer”; I doubt I played any better, but the painter’s maxim makes that moot.

Now, apart from the fact that I would get fired if I was stoned at work, I doubt that I could deal with the complexity of the cueing etc.; I certainly can’t, say, write for four parts while out of it, there’s just too much to hold in my poor old head. Besides, I think being out of it gives you a kind of facile, cheap creativity; but that clarity gets you closer to the real thing.

I notice that when you no longer habitually use something – even cigarettes – you have to ride out your moods more. Even as a tobacco smoker I would instinctively reach for one at the slightest hint of a mood change, taking little quick drags to counter sloth, or long deep ones to enhance pleasure. And between alcohol and pot I could pretty much be guaranteed melancholy-free.

Without those things I go up and down, but only really notice the down. When you’re up it’s as if that’s how it should be, so why should you notice? On the other hand, you never learn anything when you’re up – everything’s fine, what’s to learn?

Unless it’s really debilitating, I don’t think we should treat sadness as something that needs to be fixed (except by actually becoming happy) – in fact I think it’s counterproductive to always fix it. Think schoolkids on antidepressants.

I guess I’m grappling with these things, for the first time since my adolescence, because the combination of a divorce and simultaneously being remorsely bullied at work for a couple of years has left me ragged and low on resilience.


I’m reading “The Study of Counterpoint”, originally written in Latin in 1725, which is apparently a seminal work on a subject I know little about, but which underlies a lot of modern theory. It’s written in that Socratic teacher-student dialogue form, stodgy as hell, but you can’t help but learn the stuff.


A salty old goat like me is not easily moved by a piece of theater, but I was moved – I literally laughed and cried – like an old goat and like a baby. I have just seen “The echo of the shadow” by a Spanish company called Teatro de los Sentidos (Theater of the Senses).

It’s one-on-one labyrinth theater, and is like a series of lucid dreams – for example, half-seen people touch your shadow or you touch theirs, and you could feel it. You ride in a little bed-boat while someone reads your story from a book you found earlier in a tiny library, someone prepares you a delicious little dessert then snatches it from your mouth just as it touches your lips, then leaves you alone in the dark.

In one scene a woman guides your hand through a hole in a cushion to touch her belly; she places an egg in your hand and together you gently rock, nursing the egg. Suddenly she crushes the egg in your hand – it’s only a dry, empty shell. Her eyes go cold and she sends you away. It was so much the story of my recent life that I cried.

Sometimes it hurt, or was funny or puzzling or enlightening; but as if it had been written for me alone, At the same time it was universal: like a dream, everyone would have their own (sometimes contradictory) interpretation of each vignette.

Afterwards I could barely walk, my senses were exaggerated; I did not want to hear or see anything else, so as not to break the spell.

The performers have to repeat their tiny sub-shows alone dozens of times a day to whomever comes in, finding a new relationship with someone every few minutes – I wonder how they hold on to their sanity.


I went on an outing with the Sentidos cast, to Las Grutas, which fittingly is a labyrinth of caves and grottos near town; each grotto has formations which supposedly look like various Catholic-style apparitions, Maddona and nino, Hand-of-Death, Coke-bottle etc. The lighting was hilarious: one massive conical formation was suddenly illuminated – surprise! – with jumbo Christmas decorations, another cavern had been fitted with actual chandeliers.


I had to wear coke-bottle glasses from the age of four, and they don’t make life any easier. To cap that off, I started high-school with the specs, braces on my theeth including external frame, and a cast on my broken nose. This took time to live down.

When contact-lens technology finally advanced to to point where it could help me (late eighties), I suddenly discovered how much more empathically people treat you when they can directly look at your eyes.

But as long as you don’t need glasses to distinguish a hydrant from a dwarf as I do, you have a social prop: taking them on and off at strategic moments can add a certain theatricality.


Our show’s over now, the tent’s down and for the next two weeks we’re doing “trabajos sociales”, workshops at a community center in a place we thought was called Sierra Ventana. It’s like Soweto with hills and cumbia de Columbia instead of township jive. Kids from six to teenage are coming to do acrobatics, malabaristicos (not bad coffee-making but juggling, hula-hoop etc.) and music with us. It started with about fifteen kids, but by the end of day one there were about seventy of them. It’s only a four-hour session, but the noise! And the concentrated attention, and the language: I’m a zombie at night, I have never been so tired just from doing some music in my life.

We’re told that there are big problems there with drugs, gangs, guns and knives, that no-one has a job, that people only leave the area to rob and steal, etc.. While this may or may not be exaggerated, (we are told this by our wonderful hosts who are nonetheless middle-class; but, like in Doncaster, a lot of the older boys wear stupidly big T-shirts, stupidly low pants, too much jewellery and unnecessary sunglasses), the enthusiasm and eagerness of these kids – just because something is happening – is overwhelming.

Revolution Proletariat is the real name of the place. A small mistake, like calling Balaclava St Kilda, but important to the locals. They wear T-shirts there saying “El otro lado de la Ventana” – “The other side of the window” – as a kind of protest at always getting lumped together.

What an astonishing experience: every day was an intense improvisation, every night a feisty meeting about how to make the next day better.

The kids are quite different from disadvantaged kids in first-world countries, in that while they may be into some heavy shit during the day, at night most of them go home to their family: mum, dad, siblings, uncles and aunts, etc.. They are much more together within themselves, and much more respectful of other people. Do I sound all Family First?

There are exceptions: one little three-year-old called T. was almost catatonic when we met him – apparently he was a “crack baby” – people said they had never heard him speak, and if you spoke or clowned around with him he would stare unresponsively, if you picked him up he hung limply from your arms; he did not understand a queue, or how to play musical chairs. But he kept hanging around, so obviously was interested in his way, and by the end he was talking, laughing, joining in, cuddling etc.; still a little odd, but an amazing transformation.

The last day was a kind of performance; hundreds of locals showed up to see the kids run their new tricks and hear the songs we helped them write. The mayor was there, and the media – it blew out into quite a brouhaha. We made a recording of the songs and burned a hundred CDs to distribute. Afterwards everyone spent two hours saying goodbye to everyone else, and there were plenty of tears.


On the way to the Lavanderia I see a big council truck with green hills and trees painted on the side along with a slogan about “ambiente” (environment), belching out a great opaque black cloud which had obliterated the road behind it and blackened its own rear half.


Mexico’s farewell gift was the last-minute-of-the-last-night meeting and later kissing-goodbye of an astonishing woman (an actress named L.) whom I have sadly had to leave behind, as I am now in Galveston, Texas, trying to remember the words of that song: “I still hear your something, something…”.

From all this kissing and leaving, involving little conscious action on my part, I must diagnose myself as suffering from a special form of The Kavorka, a poorly-understood Eastern European curse famously suffered by Kramer of the television show “Seinfeld”, which renders the sufferer irresistible to their gender of choice; but in my case, only when one of us is about to go somewhere.

While good for my self-esteem, all this goodbying is a little tiring, so if the curse doesn’t wear off by itself in a few more days, I’ll have to follow the advice given to Kramer in that episode and take a garlic bath.

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