Saturday, 19 July 2014

Oaxaca - The Bridge in the Jungle

Oaxaca is more famous for its painters, than its writers and it was difficult to find a book in English by a Oaxacan writer.  However, I did stumble across the mysterious B Traven, someone who wrote quite a few novels about Mexico and whose identity and life is shrouded in mystery.

The mysterious B Traven

B Traven was a pen name and the theories about his identity range from the most accepted version, that he was a German actor and anarchist named Ret Marut to the idea that he was actually from the US or may even have been the writer Jack London, who could have faked his death and moved to Mexico to continue writing!

What we do know is that his novels were originally published in German and that his writing influenced anarchist and leftist movements across the world, notably the anti-Nazi White Rose movement of Bavaria, which is believed to have been named after B Traven's novel Die weisse Rose (1929).  Probably his most famous book is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927), which was made into a Hollywood movie in 1948, starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston.

Trailer for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre:

Traven's knowledge of indigenous life in Mexico

I chose to read The Bridge in the Jungle also published in German in 1929 and later published in English in 1940.  Like B Traven's other books, The Bridge in the Jungle champions the lives of the native people of southern Mexico, los Pueblos Indígenas.  Whoever B Traven was, he certainly had a great insight into what life was like for Mexico's native peoples, living in poverty, far from the Mexican authorities.

The narrator of the novel is a US citizen, who has travelled to a remote region of southern Mexico (could be Oaxaca, although it seemed more like Chiapas to me, from what little I've learned about Mexico!)  When the narrator is describing his own homesickness and nostalgia for the forests and lakes of Wisconsin, it sounds genuine and I can't help wondering if B Traven wasn't really an American citizen on the run from the US government?

Theme: Loss of Innocence

The Bridge in the Jungle revolves around the disappearance of a young boy, Carlos, during a festivity in a remote 'Indian' village.  Carlos' mother notices something is up and alerts the other adults in the village who begin searching for the young boy in the dark jungle surrounding the village.  The village is connected to the place where the party is happening (at the Pumpmaster's house) by a rudimentary bridge built by US oil prospectors to enable water to be supplied to a rail depot servicing their oil field.

The Bridge in the Jungle by waywuwei
The bridge itself becomes a symbol of the transition from life to death, as it is the main culprit in the boy's death.  He loses his footing on the bridge and falls into the river, where he bashes his head on a rock and drowns.

The bridge was, in a way, responsible for his death.  It is a symbol of modern life and man-made construction, in an otherwise natural landscape.  When describing the water pump, the narrators says that it 'shrieked, howled, whistled, spat' - an unnatural monster which brings the outside world into the Garden of Eden.

The bridge is a symbol of Mexico itself.  When you look at a map of Central America, the regions from northern Mexico all the way to Panama form a kind of land bridge, uniting the bigger continents of North and South America. To the North Americans, Mexico is the bridge in the jungle and B Traven captures this potent symbol very well.

Theme: The Corruption of Wealth and US exploitation

The bridge isn't the only factor in the young boy's death, as his death is also caused by the fact that he lost his footing because of the new pair of shoes he was wearing.  The shoes were brought by his favourite older brother, Manuel, who has come down from Texas, where he is working as a immigrant labourer.  The shoes become a symbol of US imperialism in the sense that, if the boy had been in his bare feet, he would have felt the edge of the bridge and not fallen into the river.  The shoes are a symbol of vanity and the corruption of wealth - the boy wears them because he is proud and it is vanity and pride that lead to his death.

It's a complicated metaphor, but Traven makes his point subtly and with a good deal of sympathy for Carlos' family, who are one of the poorer families in the village and whose only wealth is the temporary capital of Manuel's labour.

Theme: A Light on the dark River

River snaking through the jungle in Oaxaca by waywuwei
The third element that caused the boy's death was the darkness of the jungle at night and the fact that he couldn't see where he was going.  Perhaps the darkness of the jungle symbolises the dark period of history that the native people have entered, where their traditional world has been turned upside down, their lives have lost meaning and their destinies are controlled by the Mexican government and the US oil prospectors.

In this darkness, the 'Indians' turn towards their faith, symbolised by the lighted candle floating on the river, which helps them recover the body of the dead boy.

Traven's views on religion are clearly expressed and the narrator of The Bridge in the Jungle finds it hard to believe that a candle floating on the water could find the boy's body, after hours of dragging the river had failed.  He is horrified by the superstitions that the Indians cling to and their fatalism when faced with the tragedy of the novel.

There is an interesting scene where the narrator is disgusted to learn he has been drinking coffee prepared from river water - not because of hygiene concerns (he's got used to this aspect of jungle life), but because the water in the coffee is the same water that the boy drowned in.  In a symbolic nod to the symbolism of Christian rituals, the villagers are literally consuming the body and blood of the dead child.

Other themes

Although it's a fairly short novel (just 176 pages in the edition I read), The Bridge in the Jungle is packed with symbolism and there were many other themes that Traven touched upon - I'd like to highlight a few more of these below:

Oaxacan jungle and the Pacific Ocean by waywuwei
Fear of Strangers
Solitude and the ghosts of the jungle
Going native
Fear of the night
The power of a mother's grief
Death as a quiet event that can go unnoticed
The guilt of an US citizen living in Mexico
The powers of white men to resurrect the dead
The value of water
The mysticism of foreign cultures/beliefs
The validity of miracles
Dissonance - the discordant music and the contradictory characters, e.g.the superstitious Communist and the drunken schoolteacher

I'll leave you with a quote from the novel, that I thought was particularly poignant:

The jungle was singing its eternal song of joy, love, sadness, pain, tragedy, hope, despair, victory, defeat.  What did the jungle or the bush care about the things that had happened here? To the jungle, men are of no account . . What is man to the jungle? He takes a few trees out, or a few shrubs, or he clears a patch to build a jacal and plant some corn and beans or a few coffee trees.  If man forgets that patch for but three months, it is no longer his; the jungle has taken it back.  Man comes, man goes, the jungle stays on.  If a man does not fight it daily, it devours him.

Image credits:

For this blog post I wanted to highlight the photography of Flickr member waywuwei a US-born photographer who lives in Mexico.  These images were taken on a trip waywuwei made to Oaxaca in February 2011.  Amazingly, he also managed to photograph a bridge in the Oaxacan jungle!  You can see more of waywuwei's photos on his blog.

Thanks for sharing these with us, using the Creative commons license!

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Oaxaca - The Columbian Exchange

Although I learned about the Conquistadors when I was at school, I wanted to get a general overview of the history of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, as I felt that I didn't know the subject well enough and it's important to understand the historical context of Mexico, when blogging about modern-day Oaxaca.

I was lucky enough to find an engaging account of the Spanish conquest called Conquistadors by Michael Wood, written in conjunction with the BBC series of the same name that was broadcast in 2000.  Wood has written several history books as part of the BBC series and I'd recommend this book, as I really enjoyed his easy style of writing and the fact that he quoted from different sources (Aztec and Peruvian), not just telling the story from the Spanish point of view.

Conquistadors (2000) by Michael Wood
16th-century Oaxaca was a little bit off the beaten track, just as it is today, therefore it doesn't feature highly in the story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.  In those days, 'Mexico' was the Aztec empire, which stretched from the mountains north of the Mexico valley to the southern Pacific coast in modern-day Chiapas.  The Spanish first showed up in the Mayan lands of Yucatan, before moving up the coast to Veracruz and, eventually, making their way to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico city) high in the Sierra Madre.

The Columbian Exchange

Wood, quite rightly, depicts the meeting of Aztec leader, Motecuhozuma (aka Montezuma) with the conquistador Hernán Cortés as a 'meeting of two worlds'.  Karl Marx described it as 'the greatest event in the history of the world'.  As it turned out, the meeting was more of collision of completely different cultures and the outcomes, in terms of globalisation, were immense - after defeating the Aztecs, the Spanish went on to conquer all of central America, the southern United States and South America.

I found the term 'Columbian exchange' quite interesting - it has nothing to do with cocaine or the Bolsa de Bogota, but refers to the exchange of cultures, goods and materials that happened as a result of Colombus' 'discovery' of the Americas.  It was the cruellest exchange in history; where the Americans gave us new foods, plants, medicines and cultural wealth, Europeans brought disease, destruction and devastation to highly-sophisticated societies that had evolved over many centuries without outside influence.

Guns, Germs and Steel

I read a book a few years ago called, Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) by the US scientist, Jared Diamond. This book, more than any other, helped me understand the geography of the world and how this enabled Europeans to make the technological advancements that enabled them to conquer American societies which were unable to resist European guns, germs and steel.

It's estimated that 90-95% of the native population in the Americas died as a result of European diseases, the chief culprit being smallpox, which native Americans had no resistance to.  These deadly epidemics, more than anything, led to the successful conquest of the Americas by Europeans.

There is an interesting documentary on YouTube (by National Geographic) that outlines Diamond's theories - I'm embedding the video below, so you can watch this, if you're interested.

The Cruelty of the Conquistadors

The Europeans could not have predicted the impact their diseases would have on the native peoples of the Americas.  Even so, European/Spanish behaviour in the Americas was appalling.  The conquest of Mexico and Peru are stories of greed, lust, violence and cultural destruction.  The Spanish trampled on everything they saw and raped and murdered the local people in their pursuit of wealth, particularly gold.  It's pretty shocking to read about, from a 21st-century perspective but, in the context of 16th-century Europe, where violence and war was the order of the day, perhaps not all that surprising.

Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro
I was interested to learn that most of the leading conquistadors came from the Spanish region of Extremadura.  Very much a harsh frontier in 16th-century Spain, Extremadura had, for a long time, been part of an Islamic caliphate and by the early 1500's it was inhabited by Christians who'd moved in and taken over the land, pushing the Muslims and Jews out.  The conquistadors were, therefore, from tough 'frontier' stock and I can't help wondering if their harsh frontier mentality accounted for their greed, violence and hatred of the 'Other' when they set out to conquer the Americas?

Hernán Cortés was related to the Pizarro brothers, a kind of mafia family who murdered the Peruvian Inca and grabbed so much wealth in South America.  Whilst reading the history of the conquests, I sensed that the conquest of the Americas got completely out of control.  Although the conquerors claimed to be acting in the name of the King of Spain and the Catholic church, it's clear that they were in it for personal wealth and unrestrained by loyalty to the Spanish crown or the church.

An America that could have been?

Central American figurehead
It's sad to think of the cultural heritage the world lost because of the European conquest of the Americas. Spanish took over as the main language, Catholicism as the main religion and modern American culture is, essentially, another version of European culture.  I wonder what the world would be like today if geography and greed hadn't conspired to bring down the great civilisations of pre-Hispanic America.

What would the balance of power be like in a world with strong Aztec, Mayan and Inca leadership?  It would be the equivalent of having another world view, like that of the Chinese or Japanese or Indian cultures, that have maintained their independence from European domination.  I can't help thinking that we lost something important with the destruction of the great American cultures.

Luckily, indigenous American cultures aren't completely lost and Oaxaca is a good example of a corner of the Americas where native culture has survived the test of time.  The question is whether or not we value native American cultures enough to fight for their preservation, in an increasingly globalised world?

Image credits:

The image of the conquistadors is a composite that I put together from two copyright-free originals.

The image of the Central American figure is one that I took at the Casa de Colon in Las Palmas (Gran Canaria)

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Oaxaca - What the Heart doesn't feel

When I start blogging about a new place, I like to do a 'Google Instant test' to see what's out there on the Internet, in terms of the place I'm blogging about. It's an interesting thing to do, if you want to try it for yourself - basically, you start typing a sentence eg. Do Germans . . .? or Are Chinese people . . .? and Google fills in the rest of the question based on what other people have been searching for.  It's a great insight into the things people are interested in and can produce some surprising, and often disturbing, results.

Why do Mexicans . . .

I tried this with Why do Mexican . . . and the top results included things like Why do Mexican immigrants move to the United States? Why do Mexicans look Asian? and Why do Mexican cartels behead?  Looking back on my first blog post on Oaxaca and the stereotypes I mentioned (immigration, drugs, violence), it's sad to think that this is all Mexico means to most people!  The purpose of this blog is to help me get beyond the stereotypes and learn something else about the places I'm blogging about.

The Google Instant question that intrigued me most however was:

Why do Mexicans stare?

I had no preconception about Mexicans staring and I was a bit shocked by this question, although it's obviously a hot topic for many people (mostly in the USA?)  There is an implicit prejudice/racism in the question and a fascinating psychology behind the fear that this question touches on; fear of attack, sexual assault, fear of being observed, fear of envy or intimacy.

Why do people stare?

Staring man in Sri Lanka by Brett Davies
Eye contact is a very intense thing for any species and we humans are no exceptions.  When dealing with wild animals or even domestic pets, such as dogs, making eye contact can trigger a violent attack and whilst human 'civilisation' has evolved in a way that removes aggression and violence from everyday life, direct eye contact with a stranger is still a potentially risky thing to do!

Ever notice how people don't make eye contact in elevators?  The intensity of being in an enclosed space means we tend to keep our eyes fixed on the floor or the changing lights of the elevator buttons!

Even during conversation, with someone we know, we tend not to make eye contact, except at the end of each sentence, to ensure the other person has been listening and has understood.  In some cultures, keeping your eyes lowered is extremely important - I'm thinking of places like Japan, China and Thailand.  In India, eye contact has class barriers, in some countries, like Saudi Arabia, eye contact is restricted by gender.

In most parts of the world, we get around eye contact issues by wearing sunglasses, a safe retreat from the threat of eye contact, but also a potentially menacing approach that says: Keep your distance.

The etiquette of eye contact

The Juju death stare by Viewminder
I think cultural differences are at the heart of this question.  Perhaps it's not that Mexicans stare, but that they hold eye contact for a split-second longer than people in the US are used to?  We northern Europeans are famous for our love of personal space and I think our slightly more modest approach to eye contact, touching and physical space has been carried over to the United States, even if they do engage in a bit more back-slapping that we would consider to be appropriate!

I'd imagine that Mexicans, on the other hand, are much more open and relaxed in terms of eye contact and physical space, presumably a cultural import from Spain and the norms of southern European culture. The question Why do Mexicans stare? opens up a cultural Pandora's box that is essentially European in origin.

Aztec and Mayan cultures had strict protocols around eye contact and, like in India and East Asia, ordinary people weren't expected to make any eye contact with their superiors.  The Spanish conquistadors violated all taboos in relation to looking the Aztec leaders/priests directly in the face and they had no respect for the personal space the Aztec leaders/priests were accustomed to.

The Eye of the Beholder

Staring child by Erin/ephotography
Have you ever noticed that young children stare a lot?  This is because they haven't yet learned the social conventions around eye contact.  They stare out of curiosity and their stares are non-threatening, although they can make adults uncomfortable, as we're not used to high-levels of eye contact.

There are two times in our lives when we spend a lot of time staring into someone else's eyes.  When we're infants, we spend months staring into the eyes of our mothers, in fact, that's all we see, or want to see in the early part of our lives. And, of course, when we fall in love, we spend a lot of time staring into the eyes of our lover, as though loss of eye contact, will mean the loss of love!

There's a link between aggression and passion and eye contact is both the language of those who love and those who hate.  If you've ever watched a boxing match, you'll be familiar with the 'stare down' and non-physical precursor to the fight when the boxers try to intimidate each other.  Have a look at this YouTube video showing some of the most famous 'staredowns' in boxing history to see what I mean.

In a more innocent way, we play with this difficult social skill when we have competitions to see who can win at 'outstaring' other people.

Windows to the Soul

Such is the importance of eye contact to our psychology that our languages are full of idioms and expressions which I could fill a whole other blog post with.  One of my favourites is:

The eyes are the windows to the soul

This is a traditional English proverb that has been recycled many times by writers, poets and lovers.  To me it encapsulates everything I've mentioned above; fragility, weakness, submission, vulnerability.

I also love the traditional Irish expression:

Is maith an scáthán súil charad (A friend's eye is a good mirror)

Friends are definitely people we can make eye contact with, we bare our souls to friends and let them experience our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  It's a social bond which is amazing, if only because it exists outside the usual protective circles of family/spouses.
The Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez

It's interesting to have a look at the Spanish expression:

Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente

We usually translate this with an equivalent English-idiom 'Out of sight, out of mind' but I'm much more interested in the literal translation of this expression:

What the eyes don't see, the heart doesn't feel

Perhaps the reverse scenario of US citizens who are intimidated by 'staring Mexicans' is the perception of Mexicans that people in the US are unfeeling and not very welcoming.  Something worth thinking about?

Image credits:

I personally find it very difficult to take photographs of people, when I'm travelling around the world.  It's a skill I haven't yet mastered, which is a shame, as people are so interesting!  The image of the man in Sri Lanka was taken by Flickr member, photosightfaces aka Brett Davies, who is originally from Sydney. Brett has a whole series of photos of people in Sri Lanka, it's a really interesting collection to browse through.

The photo of the Juju death stare is by Flickr member, Viewfinder - originally from Chicago, you can see more of Viewfinder's photos on his photo stream.  There's an interesting story behind this photo, which you can read on the photo's own information page on Flickr.

The picture of the staring child is by Flickr member, ephotography, aka Erin, who is from Vancouver in Canada.  You can see more of Erin's photos on her photo stream.

Thanks to Brett, Viewfinder and Erin for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons license.

Nowadays, we feel safe with images that stare at us from a painting or a photograph, but I've included an image of The Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez (1647-51) to remind us how this painting was considered to incredibly controversial at the time.  The woman, who was probably a courtesan, was shown to be staring at the observer, something that was unheard of in 17th century European painting, even though she is depicted as staring at us indirectly through a mirror!