Monday, June 20, 2005

Our Stay in GTO, part I

number thirty-nine

This is an installment in a nine-part series detailing our first big Mexican Vacation. This is also the first in a series of numbered posts about what we did in the city of Guanajuato for eight days. Make sure to read the two subsequent posts, too. 1,946 words.


[NL; composed in GTO 6/11/05]-We went to the mummy museum on that very first day. The Guanajuato climate was crisp and warm and very sunny. My sunburn from the DF was beginning to come off my face, and I thought it would be a very good idea to come up with some indoor activities for the day. A museum seemed to be in order, so we headed out into the Guanajuato day. The sky in México City, famed for its smoggy haze, had seemed pretty normal after so long in Monterey. This is because Monterrey has also become famed, to a lesser degree, for its sky. Looking up in Guanajuato was sort of a revelation. It was crystal clear: beep blue with little puffballs of white cumulous wafting in a gentle current. Nothing like the sometimes bright yellow sky of Monterrey, dense enough to cut visibility like a fog. It was also very sunny, of course, and I could feel that on my skin acutely.

We soon discovered that three of the five directions leading away from our hotel took us to the zócalo. Down what seemed to be the main road there were more shops and plazas and restaurants. This road took us past a number of several hundred year old churches before it joined other roads in a centro of sorts in front of Guanajuato’s enormous basilica. From here, the main road was obvious, and we wandered along, taking little detours through adjoining plazas. At one point, we came across what we later learned was the Plaza de San Fernando, where there was a whole pedestrian walkway filled with booksellers under stall-like tents. We browsed here for a while, and then wandered farther along the main road, called Avenida Juárez, which took us past the Alhóndiga, the Mercado Hidalgo, and about every other thing I had read about in the guide book. I realized that we were heading in the direction of the Museo de las Momias, about a kilometer west of the edge of the guide book’s map. Well, okay, so if I wasn’t going to be spending the day indoors, then maybe I could at least walk on the shady side of the road. Sunshine seemed game to attempt a walk to the distant Museum, even though about every other bus was heading that way. We crossed to the shade and continued to wander along Juárez.

Pretty soon we had to cross back again because the road forked left and then curled up a mountain, and we had to fork with it. After about twenty minutes of trudging up this steep incline, we stopped and bought a drink and some sunscreen at a tiny little grocery. Farther up the hill we stopped for no good reason at all. Then we began to stop every few minutes. It took a while to get to the top of the hill, but once up there we saw a sign for the museum, and we got a little of our confidence back, so we kept moving forward. Interesting word, forward, as related to directions. It holds no expectation of up or down, straight or corkscrewing up the side of a precipice. It just means moving in the way you happen to be looking. Eventually forward got us there, but for a while we had been totally corkscrewed up.

At the very top of a treeless, sunny path in Guanajuato, México, there is a cemetery hidden behind sixteenth century stone walls. In this cemetery, all of the possible plots have been filled for over a hundred years. In Guanajuato, there is no room to expand, really, which is why the roads are mostly underground. Along about the same time Guanajuato ran out of room for roads, it also ran out of room for burials. Of course, people kept dying; so, in this cemetery, when they ran out of space to bury more people, they decided to exhume older graves to make room for new tenants. The first time this had to happen it was already pretty obvious it was going to become common practice, so they instituted lease agreements on the graves: everyone gets one for a little while, and after that, people who could afford to keep loved ones interred could pay the rent. Others were dug up to make space. This system has been in place here since the end of the nineteenth century. What makes it really interesting, of course, is that because of something about the cemetery—be it the high-altitude air pressure, the minerals in the soil, the high silver content of the mountains, or the very dryness of the atmosphere most of the year—the cadavers buried here mummify. Put someone in the ground in this cemetery, and within a few years (the typical stay seems to be between five and seven), chances are good that they will have desiccated into a leathery, anatomically correct brown husk. Being that this is México, where society often celebrates life with the memento mori of skeletal imagery (examples include calavera candy at el Dia de los Muertos time, the work of José Guadalupe Posada, or the long tradition of taking posthumous portraits of loved ones—especially stillborn children), there was nothing to do but put these dried cadavers on display. Mummies that are dug from the ground were, with permission assuming there were still family around to ask, propped in a hall of the catacomb for people to view. Remains deemed unfit for viewing, for whatever reason, were cremated. The paraphrase “unsuitable display quality,” keeps popping up in research, and is somewhat ominous-sounding. I have identified no explanation or definition for this label. Besides familial disinterest in turning a loved one into an attraction, what catastrophic ruination is deemed too unsightly by cemetery staff? Is this classification owed to the occasional violent mutilation before burial, or some perversion of the earth’s rendering of various specimens? I don’t know if I want to know, but thinking about it is keeping me up.

After these many years, the earth has provided so many quality specimens that the hall of mummies has become a whole museum. At the tip top of this steep hill, we finally spotted this museum along with several dozen stalls selling refreshments and souvenir trinkets. There were mummy key chains, mummy postcards, and mummy t-shirts. Admission price was a couple of bucks, including permission to photograph the displays.

Inside it was pretty dark and much cooler. The floors are cement, and the ceilings are arched. The rooms are part of the outer walls of the cemetery, and while freshly painted, are obviously very old architecture. The adult mummies are, for the most, laid out on glassed-in shelves. Initially, I thought that this was to provide humidity and temperature control for the specimens, but on closer examination I noted that the panes of glass are cut away in the corners to provide ventilation, instead. Just think, I could poke my fingers in there. Some of these vents were big enough for me to put my hand inside. All of them were big enough for a child to reach into. Some of the adult mummies were standing upright, secured here and there by twine. These glass coffins also had the ventilation cutaways. Most of the children were lined up in curio cabinets. In the cabinets there were no gaps in the glass, possibly because the children were all dressed up in expensive, if also mummified, little burial dresses.

The mummies themselves lie in various degrees of arrested decay, possibly based on when they were buried in relation to the rainy season. Some are merely mummified strips of flesh over filly exposed bone, others are whole with identifiable facial features and genitalia. While some of the mummies sport old clothes, most of the mummies are naked except for socks. Another thing to wonder about on those late nights: why are most of these mummies wearing socks? Is it because no matter how fast the world dries a mummy out, animals love jerky? Is it because after years of propping unceremoniously in the hall we were standing in, some of the mummies’ feet had just worn away? Is it to make them warmer? Quieter? I don’t know the answer to this, either.

The mummies have a number of different expressions, because, I assume, muscles and things had constricted as the moisture left them. Some of the mummies have a drawn rictus making them look like they are screaming, or smiling, or singing. Some look quite peaceful. Some of them have their hands or their feet tied together with dark twine, but it is impossible to conclude whether or not it was there for the burial or added for the display. These mummies are natural phenomena, unlike the hollowed-out and fussed over mummies of Egyptian antiquity. Like the bog people found in Denmark, or ancient men found frozen in ice, these people just happened. They were not adorned or expected to enjoy this afterlife. Their bodies were not prepared for this: they are unshaved, un-sewn; they retain their organs. There is a lot of evidence of this. The children are all terrifying. They look less human by dint of less deformity: most are propped there looking like darkening china or stained plastic, blotches that look like bad artistry; their funeral dresses are ludicrous.

A little side museum, another two bucks, was dedicated to tales of horror. This had what my travel guide called “hokey horror-show” exhibits dedicated to the illustration of local or Hollywood legends. Of course, these were all constructed with real bodies. There was a Count Dracula in the floor with a stake through him. There was a witch in her coffin, her herbs and flowers arrayed around her, an explanation of their use in her potions on her plaque. There was a finger that had haunted a young lover or murderer. There were also fake displays of torture devices and one lone wax dummy getting guillotined. I was entranced. Here was a real body, man, and someone had filed the teeth down into fangs, and staked it right through its dusty, dried-up heart.

The trip through both museums took us about forty minutes, and I took forty photographs. Some of these I threw away immediately because it was so dark the camera had been unable to focus correctly. It had been an excellent experience, making me want to walk around in the sunlight some. Sunshine kept talking about how, apparently, things that she thought had not looked realistic in movies actually did look real after all.

When we finally left the cemetery museum area, we looked around for a way to get into the cemetery itself (because I really love Mexican cemeteries), but we never did see a way through the giant walls. I admit that we didn’t try too hard because we were hungry and tired. Or maybe because for one day we’d had enough. It was still pretty hot even though it was almost four-thirty, but the trip back down the mountain was much easer and it was finally possible to find some shade along the walls that lined the road. Back at the Plaza de San Fernando, we ducked into a dungeon-like basement restaurant, and downed a lot of cold refrescos. My face was coming off pretty hardcore now as my sunburn peeled. Sitting there in that restaurant, it was impossible not to feel like this had some correlation with my day and my proximity to that cemetery that dries people. But there was no correlation, it was just the effects of the sun.

Stay tuned for part two.

Click image for guesome mummies © the Author

Quiet Reading Room

This is a quiet reading room. Often, I find it is uncomfortable to digest long tubes of columned text directly off a computer screen. This journal is dedicated to the collection, percolation, and ultimate integration of my personal experiences. Subjects that I want to examine and then talk about--sometimes talk a lot about--€”are presented here. This central content can tend to thousands of words, maybe millions. I was afraid that readers were leaving the presentation boggled, spinning, googly-eyed. Or perhaps when confronted with twenty-four inches, or yards, of monitor sprawl they were just giving up. I am not even certain that I have necessarily solved this inevitable content problem of modern information enjoyment, but here is what I have done.

After long and highly scientific routines manipulating double-blind control- and test-subjects, peer reviewed journal publications, and hours and hours of hands-on experimentation, I have crafted this quiet reading room. There is no scientific way to control the length of the articles I write, but careful handling can somewhat soothe the contextual presentation. In other words: I have dropped the traditional speculation about lexicon, and attacked the question of the matrix itself instead. Brilliant. After years of diligence what I eventually crafted is this reading room.

The walls are contoured to relax instead of constrain; the paper is made to soften instead of reflect. The light is dimmed--just so--€”to prevent strain, angled to prevent umbra, and color-coded to soften harsh red lights and deepen wimpy light reds. There is nothing I can do to control aural environment, but my recommendation is that it should be kept quiet. About ambient sound: these entries are probably best read as far as possible from emergency vehicles, preferably from beneath the muffler of a vintage fire fighter pilot's scarf, puffy old duvet, or snow that is still falling.

My theory is that the wide web world is filled with potent and material opportunities that are just too difficult to digest for many people to take part. Enjoyment of this stuff is regulated to the routines of crawlers and robots at the peril of humankind's peaceful future survival. In an attempt to delay this likely outcome: welcome to this quiet reading room. It is for people like you to relax, kick back, and hate my content for better reasons than the dizzying vertiginous specter of its lousy dpi presentation.

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