Cheap Thrills Away From Home

Nick proudly announces that he’d never paid more than $100 apiece for Broadway tickets. Marty insists that $409 for a single ticket to a single seat for Book of Mormon was a real bargain. That was still above my comfort zone, given that amount’s darn close to a partial pair of Ferragamos. Or a week’s worth of Skechers. Or maybe a sack of items at Sephora. I’ve got my priorities, you know. Debt and the kind of culture that generates reviews in places like The New Yorker just aren’t among them.

I’m not part of the lumpen proletariat, I do have an American Express gold card, have flown first class, have bought a Gucci purse or three, have owned French and Tumi luggage, and always check my baggage, frequently more than a single piece. I’ve never stayed at a hostel or Airbnb, because that’s just too close to camping. I prefer to stay at nice hotels, and if I can’t do as well or better than what I have at home, there’s no point in leaving home.

People are always asking if I caught some high-culture event or ate at some restaurant in TripAdvisor’s top ten when I’ve left home, even those who know me well enough to know what my answer will be. Upon returning from San Miguel de Allende, about 150 miles up the road from home, friends will ask about the great restaurants I ate at, only to roll their eyes when I tell them about the take-out grilled chicken from a roadhouse or a tapas bar at a swank grocery store.

My holidays are filled with regular things, regular meals at regular places, and souvenirs are just as likely to be regular stuff. What did I bring home from my last trip to Medellin? Shelf-stable fruit purees, cotton hand towels, antibiotics, some bar soap, a book about Frida Kahlo’s love affair with Trotsky, and a pair of porcelain monkeys. Plastic storage containers, odd condiments, bobèches, hot pads, wire whisks, hair brushes, eyeliner, and unique kitchen tools have found their way into my baggage on other trips, each bearing a tale guaranteed to bore any listener.

Shopping malls may be dying in the United States, but they’re thriving in Latin America and elsewhere. And they rank among my favorite destinations whenever I’m away from home. I’ll research what shopping malls to hit, because the mall is my version of high culture, a sporting event, and a self-guided tour all rolled into one. Malls are an opportunity to see ordinary people, local folks doing quotidian things, even if sometimes there might be a free concert, seldom lasting more than 20 minutes, which is long enough for musical entertainment anyway. Malls are microcosms of society, town centers, and harbor much more than mere mercantile.  Nail salons, beauty parlors, art exhibits, coffee shops, and nice restaurants beckon. At least one full day will be spent at a mall, no matter where I’m going.

Buenos Aires’ Patio Bullrich, Galerías Pacífico, Paseo Alcorta, Alto Palermo, El Solar de la Abadía. Montevideo’s Punta Carretas Shopping, Town Center in Boca Raton, Medellin’s El Tesoro Parque Comercial, Queretaro’s Antea Lifestyle Center, The Galleria in Houston, Honolulu’s Ala Moana Shopping Center, Denver’s Cherry Creek Center, Bogota’s Centro Comercial Andino and Hacienda Santa Barbara. I’d rather spend hours at any one of them (and have) than at the Met or the Getty Center. And advance reservations, long lines and admissions never come into the picture.

Even down-market malls have a certain appeal. The Centro Comercial Palacio Nacional is in the heart of the downtown Medellin harbors an amazing collection of the tackiest merchandise you’ll ever see, but the stores aren’t the point. Because it really did start out as the national palace, you’re really there for the architecture.

Give me a day at El Corte Ingles, and I’m better entertained than I would’ve been at the Prado. Far more exciting than a museum, a wander through Harrods’ Egyptian Hall and Crystal Rooms costs nothing. The architecture of the flagship El Palacio de Hierro in Mexico City is breath-taking. Even high-end drug and dime stores like Boots and Sanborns harbor treasures I know I won’t find at home.

I’m impelled to search out Chinatowns wherever I go: Chicago, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Calgary, London. San Francisco and China don’t have the franchise on Chinatown.

Even grocery stores, ranging from little corner abarrotes, bodegas, kioskos, to supermarkets and all the way up to Carrefour, are mustn’t-miss cultural attractions. It’s fascinating to explore new produce items, puzzle over why the meat department is filled with tons of cured meat, chuckle over the offerings over on the gourmet aisle (Pace picante salsa and hard taco shells, anyone?), gaze upon twelve kinds of quinoa, inspect interesting crackers and cookies.  I’m still sporting shopping bags from Carulla with the same pride that attaches to those from Draeger’s Market and Trader Joe’s.

Always beckoning are antique stores and thrift shops, even more entertaining when I’m on a mission. I shop for monkeys, most often the ones impersonating humans. One friend is always on the prowl for Hawaiian shirts, another for antique brandy snifters, and yet another has yet to see a Breyer horse that she can’t pass up.

Finding yourself in an odd part of town filled with stores you never knew existed – one specializing in belts, another in dog collars, one selling zippers and only zippers, and yet another specializing in cabinet pulls with a door knob store next door—is magic. I’ve taken taxis clear across town to visit a Home Depot-esque places in foreign countries, just to see what’s selling, satisfying my curiosity about what a stove might cost, pawing through the garden department for seeds not sold where I live.

Street vendors call out to me. I rarely buy, but I always gawk. A cure-all made from live snail ooze, battery-operated electric flyswatters, lighted walking sticks, a pistol that shoots soap bubbles, cell phone time, pirated merchandise, sponge rats, fake eyelashes in fantasy colors.

The organ grinder mesmerizes me, always evoking the memory of one I saw years ago with live bear tethered to the organ.

Hippie and flea markets may be the same the world over, all surely run by some worldwide hippie market syndicate that prescribes the essentials: candles, soap, odd oils and potions, incense, chocolates, tisanes, herbal remedies, musical instruments made out of gourds by political prisoners, patchouli and El Condor Pasa wafting through the air, indigenous clothing, and some craft made from recycled materials like vinyl records or wooden lasts.

There’s a blessing somewhere for those fortunate to watch a living statue set up at the beginning of a shift and deconstructed at the end.

And then there are the hardcore markets: Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, Mexico City’s La Lagunilla Sunday antiques market, which means donning combat clothing, checking anything of value back at the hotel. These are living, breathing museums where all sorts of treasures are for sale.

I don’t understand why people take guided tours when striking out on your own is so much more fun. There’s no cheaper and more interesting way to see a city than by hopping on a commuter train or bus and riding to the end of the line or until boredom sets in and then dovetailing back.

Sunday tango in the streets of San Telmo, a Cuban a capella concert in Merida, a dog show in Sevilla, the juggler playing a harmonica while riding a unicycle in Amsterdam, and a bazaar of new designs and a clown workshop in Bogota all provided lasting memories without costing a dime. Even right here in my hometown of Morelia, fascinating and free entertainment abounds. Grown people, some of them even doctors and lawyers, painting designs on fabric, the stuff I’d roll my eyes at, at least until I realized the participants, chatting away, and having a great time doing what they were doing, left me happier just for watching them. Orchid shows, caporeia exhibitions, dancing horses from Apatzingan, and the Sunday art market in Parque Las Rosas, and book fairs compete for my attention.

And then there’s the matter of eating. Too many friends plan their travel by restaurants and TripAdvisor ratings, and I’ve even accompanied them on those jaunts, forced to stand in line for the opportunity to shed far more money than the dining experience warranted.

Don’t get me wrong. I like to eat, and I like to eat well. I just resist planning and spending outrageous sums of money.

Now, I’m no fan of food trucks or street food, and where I can comfortably plant my derriere is just as important as what goes down my gullet. It’s not all about the cheap; it’s more about the timing and convenience. The rest is just serendipity.

A cup of regular black coffee served in a china cup, along with a domino cookie, for less than a dollar in a sidewalk café populated mostly by city hall employees in Envigado. A Monday meatloaf special in a New Orleans diner of no memorable name. The best cochinita pibil in Merida, located just by asking two lawyers on their smoke break where they would have an ordinary lunch. Those great and incredibly inexpensive meals are still fondly remembered more than some expensive repast at a destination venue like Commander’s Palace or The Russian Tea Room (which I dearly loved for the décor).

When I’m traveling, just as at home, my main meal is midday. The menú turístico (tourist menu) has never let me down, and it’s usually an opportunity to enjoy several courses at a fixed price for far less than a la carte. Upscale grocery stores usually have a deli with an eating area, often a great opportunity to pick up something tasty for a light supper. I’ve enjoyed duck tacos, Lebanese platters, Peruvian ceviches, and pastel de choclo from grocery store takeout.

Food fairs, gatherings of regional cooks, celebrations of traditional cuisine, even charity barbecues have served up great food at affordable prices, and each of those was even better, because I’d just stumbled upon those events.

Even for those who aren’t fast food franchise fans at home, McDonald’s in Lima and Pizza Hut in Madrid command visits for intercultural exploration, fueling their passion more than Astrid y Gaston and Botín.

That Swarovski-encrusted car at Centro Comercial Andino in Bogota remains far more vivid in my mind that any Bruegel art, and I’m sure I’m not alone in finding Kinky Friedman more appealing than Phillip Glass. Call me easily entertained.

Previously published in Voice of Experience: June 2020, American Bar Association Senior Lawyers Division.

The Once and Always King

 

I loved the guy. And so did all of America, until something went terribly wrong with that country, leaving only the French to adore him. I still worship the fellow.

For a decade or so, I’d stay up through the night and through the morning, the television tuned on to the Labor Day weekend telethon, not because I particularly cared about muscular dystrophy, but because I found Jerry Lewis so enthralling.

More than just the most creative comedian of his times, redefining funny, Lewis was a mensch. A stand-up man. A class act. And even though his political beliefs matched mine, he never, ever, let politics get in the way of culture. The world has lost a hero.

Rest well, Jerry Lewis. If there is a heaven, it will be filled with laughter.

Buscando Ocampo (Part 4)

Hardly anyone we asked knew of Ocampo. Our requests were often met with blank stares. Some pretended, telling me that he surely was a famous Patzcuarense artist. No, not even, I explained, telling them he was born in Celaya, now lives  in Tepoztlán, and is famous. Well, at least Ocampo’s famous among those who know his work.

An art dealer in his sixties dismisses our query with the excuse that “there are so many up and coming young artists that I just can’t keep track of them all.” We tell him that Octavio Ocampo was born in 1944.

“Oh, you mean Melchor Ocampo?”  Nope. Not hardly.

No, no, no, not Octavio Ocampo Córdova, the alcalde of Tuzantla.

Finally, I came upon F., who is clearly the most educated Patzcuarense we know when it comes to art. Yes, he remembered when the Ocampos and Boteros were sold on every street corner. But no one’s interested in them these days. He explains that Ocampo and Botero bought created giant paintings, which weren’t easily reproduced in easily portable and affordable sizes. And maybe the company that was cranking out those copies is no longer in business. I wasn’t ready to buy all of his explanation, but it came closer than any I’d heard all day.

At Starbucks, a man identifying himself as an artist whips out his iPhone to show us photos of his paintings, going on about how a woman in Los Angeles bought all of his paintings so that she could have a gallery of his work right in her house. I ask him about Octavio Ocampo. The name doesn’t register, and the iPhone-bearing artist says “Oh, I’ve spent most of my life in Mexico City, so I wouldn’t know some painter from Michoacán.” I tell him that Ocampo is important, prolific, and how he even painted a retrato of Jimmy Carter for then-President Lopez Portillo’s state gift to the then-President Carter. Another blank stare. We recite, once again, the salient details of Ocampo’s Wikipedia entry, explaining he’s no doubt well-acquainted with CDMX, and even though he’s surely visited Morelia and Patzcuaro, just like every Mexican citizen has, he’s no homeboy from Michoacán.

In Queretaro, we run into a man we’ll just call Emilio, an entrepreneur close to politicians and otherwise a fine, gregarious fellow, and we ask him about Ocampo. “Oh yeah, he’s a very good friend of mine” he tells us, reminiscing about how, back in his days as a television producer, he handled everything for Ocampo’s exhibition in France. Thrilled that we finally have caught up with someone who knows who we’re looking for, we chat about his work, Emilio telling us how he’s got a copy of the Mona Lisa in his house. But when we ask if he could contact Ocampo for us, or at least provide his contact information, suddenly his status as a very good friend shrivels to “Well, it’s been years since I’ve been in touch with him. Maybe even two decades.”

 

Showing anyone who’ll look photos of his work on my iPad isn’t yielding any results. I began to wonder whether a campaign to put his visage on milk cartons might work.

 

Buscando Ocampo (Part 3)

We Mexicans don’t often agree on a lot of things. We’re like Jews that way. Put six Mexicans or six Jews together, and you’ll have eleven opinions. Nothing — tacos, nopal, the tri-color of PRI, not even the eagle and the serpent — will put all Mexicans on the same page. But there is one dame whom every Mexican venerates, right down to the atheists and the evangelicals and the Mormons and even the testigos de Jehová, and she’s the Virgen of Guadalupe. No one brings us all together like she does.

The holiest day of the year, bigger than Christmas and Easter, is Dia de Guadalupe, the 12th of December.

You’re heard the saying that only 82% of all Mexicans are Catholic, but 120% of us are Guadalupanos. Being Mexican (or even living in Mexico) and not appreciating the Virgen would be sort of like being Episcopalian and eating shrimp cocktail with the salad fork. It’s one of those things that’s just not done. The Virgen’s not just a saint – she’s the mother of our country, the icon of Mexicanidad, and she knows no borders. There is no woman in all of the Americas more powerful and more venerated than she.

So, if you’re going to be a real Mexican, her visage will adorn more than few rooms in your abode. I’ve got her image on a shopping bag, and an enameled version of her accompanies my car keys at all times. Several more Virgens show up here and there, done up in glitter and ribbon, most likely purchased during Mes Patria. It was only natural that I’d pick up a giclee on canvas reproduction of Octavio Ocampo’s Virgen de Guadalupe about a decade ago.

And then we just couldn’t take our eyes off of Ocampo’s Virgen. There was a magic in this one, new details revealing themselves each time I looked at it: faces inside of roses, campesinos on her eyelids, angels on her robe, a man caressing her left cheek, the new Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and the old one on the left, a red brick gothic church that looked like it would be right at home in Germany on the right. And wait, it’s not just a painting, but a metapainting on a canvas being held up by an almond-eyed Juan Diego.

Image by Deb Winarski

 

Our research about the background of this work went off and on, since we’ll never be confused with serious researchers, much less art historians. Ocampo created this work, measuring some 1.70 meters in height, on commission in 2000 for St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church in Evanston for $60,000 USD. And it wasn’t just happenstance that brought Ocampo’s work to this church. The Saint Nicholas Parish had been a polyglot church longer than it hadn’t, its parishioners going from mostly speaking German to speaking mostly English to speaking enough Spanish that its website is now bilingual. Its Mexican parishioners were mostly drawn from Celaya and Salvatierra in the state of Guanajuato, Ocampo was born in Celaya, and everyone from the Bajio has a cousin in Chicago.

 

Images by Dale R. Granchalek

 

 

Dr. Fernando Vizcaíno Guerra of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México political science faculty does much better job of explaining the Ocampo Virgen and how it made its way from Celaya to Evanston in his article La Virgen de Guadalupe y la Identidad en una Parroquia en el Area de Chicago, which appears in La Frontera de las Identidades.

But we still couldn’t envision how this painting looked in living color, so we searched the church’s website until we came upon Dale R. Granchalek, who graciously went out of his way to provide the photos shown in this blog post, recruiting his colleague, Deb Winarski, to photograph the single image of the painting.

My little 12 x 18” pirated version of Ocampo’s Virgen seems paltry in comparison to the real thing, but it led me to the real thing and the story behind it, so that makes it important and valuable to me.

Meanwhile, my small, cheap reproduction now resides in a country house on the road to Guanajuato, Grace Slick having begged me to loan it to her, since her house lacked a proper rendition of the Virgen. So, I extracted a blood oath from her, a covenant to protect the Virgen, returning her unharmed to my house after she performs the necessary and appropriate miracles in her new location.

 

 

 

 

Buscando Ocampo (Part 2)

Giclee on canvas reproductions of Ocampo’s work, which we refer to simply as “Ocampos,” just as we’d call anything by Picasso “Picassos,” began to show up at the carnivals that accompanied the fiestas patronales honoring the patron saint of practically every typical Mexican burg. On the 15th day of August the La fiesta de la Asunción, Assumption Day for the rest of you, rolls around in my neighborhood, which means that the plaza and surrounding streets are filled with carnival rides that have been declared unsafe in places like Oklahoma, carnival games of chance promising valuable prizes, corn dogs, pink party cake, and a mole fest.

But if all that’s not enough to separate fiesta-goers from their money, there’s plenty of stuff to buy: pirated DVDs, bras, houseplants, and hand-made appliqued frilly toilet lid covers. And art. The giclee-on-canvas Ocampos may have been around for ages for all I know, but I didn’t first really pay much attention to them until 2004, when a long-term houseguest we’ll just call Kato bought a couple or three of them to decorate the casita, promising he’d leave them behind. He would leave, taking those Ocampos with him, and they now reside in Santa Fe.

Ocampos were suddenly all over the place: in front of the Basilica in Patzcuaro, on the side streets leading to the Basilica, and at the muelle. His work had to be the most-pirated work around, showing up in greater numbers than the Boteros of a few years earlier.

We’re sure that we read in some interview with the artist somewhere, sometime, where he was asked how he felt about seeing all of those unauthorized reproductions of his work where common folk could easily purchase them. His response seemed to be, if we remember correctly, was something about the futility of copyright, his compensation for the originals, and accessibility of his work to the kind of people who buy their art at carnivals. And so, we would go on to relate to others what we thought we’d read, only to hear those others remark about what a swell, practical kind of guy he must be. But then this may be myth for all we know, or maybe it was something we just dreamed up because it sounded good.

Ocampo may be Mexico’s most prolific artist you’ve never heard of. He’s one of those artists whose works everyone recognizes, but whom no one can connect a name.

Edgar Hoill, writing for Lowrider Arte Magazine, sat down with Ocampo, and he shares their exchange in “Octavio Ocampo – The Art of Metamorphosis.”

And we’ll share more of our search for Ocampo in coming installments.

Buscando Ocampo (Part 1)

We don’t know how this story is going to end, but it begins during the middle of the sexenio of Carlos Salinas de Gortari at Morelia’s Fiesta Camelinas, a shopping center at the corner of Camelinas and Venture Puente. An art supply and frame store had a few pictures displayed at its entrance, and one caught my eye. Well, truth be told, it caught my mother’s eye more than mine, and even though she had impeccable taste, she did tend toward artwork that coordinated with the furniture. She thought the piece would work well with the claret leather sofa in the gray-walled living room. I would return to the art supply and frame store later that day and buy the print. After all, it was already framed and matted, and you can’t go wrong with that.

 

And to this day it hangs in the living room, now painted dark green, sometimes switching places with a Jesus Escalera piece and my mother’s glamour portrait for display in the dining room, now covered with pale salmon walls, bookcases and a map of the world. Sometimes I hang it alongside the dour portraits of my great-grandparents, the only images of any relatives I’ve got anywhere in my house except for the few photos I drag out for the Dia de los Muertos ofrenda.

 

Ernesto Zedillo would occupy Los Pinos, and my mother’s passports would join my grandparents’ documents on the ofrenda. I would make Mexico my permanent home.

 

Not until the early years of Vicente Fox’s administration would I pay much attention to what was penciled in: 6/500 on the lower left-hand side and in the usual right-hand place the artist’s signature, O Ocampo. There wasn’t a lot about him on the web back then, his first Wikipedia entry in Spanish as well as English not showing up until Felipe Calderón’s presidency was well underway in 2007. All I really knew for sure was that there were 499 other prints just like mine circulating around the planet.

 

And then I began to wonder if everyone else already knew about Octavio Ocampo. Was his name a household word that somehow I’d missed along the way? Who is this guy?

 

Stayed tuned as some of the story unfolds, even if we don’t know how it’ll end. Or even when it’ll end.