..First Glyph

February 7
12:30 p.m.

I did not breakfast before boarding the bus to Jalapa. And I did not take possession of my Jalapa lodgings until sometime after 11 a.m. So as I sit cross-legged on my firm hotel bed now scribbling these words with my right hand, with my left hand I roll and raise to my salivating mouth a soft warm tortilla.

The girl at the tortillería smiled amusedly when I told her I wanted "un kilo de tortillas." She smiled amusedly because they trade in nothing else. Then all of the girls behind the counter chuckled when I just stared blankly at the receipt she handed me and stupidly stood. I did not know to tender the receipt to the woman who weighs and packs the tortillas. The chuckling was good-natured. I joined in.

This tortillería stood at the periphery of Jalapa's central market. A man from whom I purchased carrots and apples directed me to it. Tortillerías also stand sometimes in densely populated city neighborhoods, or on vacant village lanes, or in inhumanly cramped out-of-the-way niches. Usually one is near. Sometimes you happen upon them by accident, walking. The conveyor belts on which the flattened corn masa passes through the ovens make a distinctive squeak. That squeaking seasons the air around the storefront. I always know I'm about to pass a tortillería a good block before I do so. I'm always prepared then to proffer my pesos, to give my thanks.

Soft and warm. It is no abuse of cliche to say these tortillas melt in your mouth. They disintegrate. They deliquesce. There are no Mexican tortillas outside of Mexico, I will here pronounce. You have to stand and watch the masa prepared, watch the masa flattened and cut into circles, watch the circles of masa enter the oven by conveyor belt, and then watch them emerge from the oven's far side as steaming round tortillas. Then you have to see the bored aproned woman stack them. And see that aproned bored woman wrap them in brown paper for you, a kilo at a time. Then you must open that brown paper at first opportunity, as I just have, and roll one into a little flute that's raised to your lips and then dissolved upon your tongue, between your teeth. That's a Mexican tortilla. No wonder corn meal was the substance of man's creation in the Mayan myths. No wonder it was the domestication of this sacred grain that led to the rise of that extraordinary civilization.

And it is the corn tortilla that is the tortilla in Mexico. In the United States it is common to think of tortillas as made of flour. But if you want a flour tortilla in Mexico you have to ask specifically for a "tortilla de harina." If you want a corn tortilla in Mexico you simply say "tortilla."

Three pesos per kilogram they cost. About twenty-five cents a pound.

The decor of this room gropes toward a brown. A high ceiling fields wayward echoes from the block walls and tile floor. A single bare light bulb hangs. But the hotel is cheaper and better situated than my Veracruz hotel. I can see the cathedral from my window, the miniature plaza before the cathedral, and that plaza's stone Madonna. And I'm just a steep hill's climb from the market.

The most immediate difference between Veracruz and Jalapa is the cool, florid air of Jalapa. This due to the markedly higher elevation, the forest environs. Then, too, the streets here are narrower, more uncomfortably cobbled--a bequest of the Spanish. And a sign at town's edge says Jalapa was founded in the year 1519, the first settlers being Totonacs. Jalapa is the capital of the state of Veracruz. Its inhabitants are known as Jalapeños.

3:30 p.m.

Idle today, a travel day. I strolled leisurely through the plaza in front of Jalapa's governmental palace to appreciate the vista. The plaza is placed on a sharp rise overlooking the quaint rooftops of the city--with their hot water tanks, with their drippy clotheslines. Large misty mountains loom in the near distance under a dim leaden light. I descended then a romantic set of steps just because they were romantic, dropping precipitously from the plaza to some place unseen. They emptied onto a winding lane which I then followed. Zaragosa, it was called. Zaragosa brought me to this nestled quiet cafe. A park lies at the foot of this lane, too. I saw it. I will continue on to that park when I no longer have this steaming café con leche for company.

First impressions suggest Jalapa as bohemian. A flier for a yoga class flapped from under the windshield wiper of a car parked in front of an art supply store. This I saw. And hundreds of books were for sale in that plaza above. The Epic of Gilgamesh I saw there in Spanish. The Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha. Several young people, too, I've noticed with long loose garments and long free hair. And some nice paintings on exhibit in the bus terminal.

The atmosphere here is colonial--architecturally crowded, but in a warm way. Not too many people. A smallish city. And clean. It wouldn't be a bad place to live. All this and just a couple of hours from the gulf, a handful of hours from Mexico City. And not overrun by gringos like that other bohemian town in the center of the country, San Miguel de Allende; or like Veracruz during Carnival. There is said to be a stunning waterfall nearby. For it I have come here. I will judge a pivotal early scene of Domingo's by that waterfall. Tomorrow I visit it.

One charcoal drawing in the bus terminal struck me. I thought it a volcano, anthropomorphized. I stopped to look again. Then I saw it, more specifically, as the Ixtaccíhuatl volcano of Mexico City. It was rendered as a recumbent nude. I checked the title of the piece. Idolo dormido, it said-- Sleeping Idol. Interestingly done. A more mysterious representation of that volcano than is common. Apparently many artists congregate in Jalapa to study and work.

I read a newspaper advertisement today for a traveling exhibit of paintings. The paintings are on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Cezanne. Goya. Van Eyck. Tintorreto. Tiepolo. They are all being exhibited in Mexico City. I will try to get ahead in my budget and spend a day there. I'm familiar with these artists from books, but I've never seen any of their works live. And live such works impress much more vividly than in reproduction. My first experience with a true live masterwork showed me this. A Rubens, it was. In San Diego. How clearly I remember it. Rubens seems to have called unexpectedly to the young subject of his painting. He then paints the exact moment the young man reacts to the surprise calling, looks to him. The moment is of bright attentive curiosity, of flickering anticipation. Like the whiteness of a struck match, it is, before the flame turns yellow. The young man flares. He is caught, seeming more alive than he probably would even in his day-to-day business. Rubens' painting shows this energy in a way reproductions cannot. There is a degree of separation in reproduction. That degree deadens the work. Rubens transferred the moment, the brio, the vibrancy to the canvass. The camera does not re-transfer it. Instead it softens it, scumbles it, turns it into an object, one inanimate. Yes, that gets at it. Rubens animates the painting somehow, or captures the animation, or expresses the animation. Rubens is not just reproducing life, I'm suddenly now thinking, or even expressing it. He is, in fact, infusing life into the painting, or creating life. That painting seems to live the way a tree in spring lives, or the way the ocean lives. It is a vehicle of the friction of life, of the dynamism of life. A reproduction of it, accordingly, is like a reproduction of that tree, or of that ocean. The reproduction de-animates, stills, freezes the flux of its energy. Is this what it takes, I wonder? Is this what genius means, I wonder? To become a sort of god, or demi-god? To make the inanimate animate? To give soul to vision? To give art consciousness?

I sip now at my café con leche. Little to describe from this window. A wall. A high wall fashioned of circular volcanic stones from behind which those precipitous steps just spilled me onto this lane. On top of this high wall rests the government building, my hotel, a narrow thoroughfare, a cathedral. Signs across the high wall adjure: "post no signs across the wall."

Of those painters listed in the newspaper advertisement I'm anxious to stand before a live Tintorreto, and a Tiepolo. These two have a taste for the dramatic that appeal to me. When I left behind the art books of American libraries, I feared I would be leaving behind, too, these old masters. I hope to attend this exhibit.

My café con leche sits empty now. This cafe is not as "vivo" as the cafes of Veracruz. But a Ranchero CD has been playing through a set of stereo speakers near the counter. It is the same Ranchero CD that played on the bus trip from Veracruz this morning. The same, too, that wafted through my hotel window back in Brownsville. Very popular at the moment this music. I'm not familiar with the artist. I quite like it. Perfectly it suited my mood and the landscape between here and Veracruz, especially the mules alongside the road, and that brush fire tended by that old man.

A calendar of the Virgin Mary hangs above the cash register. I will go now to her with my offering. I will visit now the park at the end of the lane.


John Dishwasher

The Gods of Our Fathers