Much of the metalwork consists of commissioned statuary; usually images of the Buddha, sometimes of other bodhisattvas. These works are large; check out the hammer lying on the floor for scale.
The metal of choice here is copper, beaten into shape by hand. More ornate by far than the copper ash tray I hammered out for my father in seventh-grade shop class.
Repeated hammering causes copper to become work hardened. It'll crack unless it is de-tempered by heating the workpiece to red heat and then plunging it into water—one part of the skill set being learned by the students.
Once assembled into a completed sculpture, the copper is covered with gold leaf, like the fourteen-foot Buddha shown in the first post on Norbulingka.
Delicate filagreed pieces are gilded by electoplating, using an exceptionally crude lash-up. Workers, masked against toxic fumes, hold an enameled tray containing an alkaline solution over a gas fire. A power supply establishes a current from the workpiece and a small gold ingot, both immersed in the solution. Gold ions detach from the ingot. They flow through the solution and attach to the workpiece. The plating is only a few micrometers thick. The tiny ingot, barely visible at the right of the pan, will plate many square yards of copper.
In the wood shops, a few student test pieces hang on a wall. The woodworking students won the Norbulingka basketball tournament this year, celebrating by carving their own trophy.
Woodworkers use no machine tools. They don't need them. Saws, planes and chisels are sharper than surgical scalpels. They glide through wood, permitting exceptionally fine work.
Works created in the wood shops are finished by elaborate painting. These museum-quality pieces are on display in the institute's gift shop.
Norbulingka is a small candle burning in a darkening world. This week, the Dalai Lama announced he is abandoning talks with the Chinese on cultural autonomy for Tibet. A younger generation agitates for more direct action. Will these student craftsmen abandon their chisels and brushes for bombs and guns? What then will become of Tibetan culture?
This was posted from a moving bus with a wifi hot spot. The world is becoming more connected every minute!
Many Tibetan paintings present images of bodhisattvas (beings that compassionately refrain from entering nirvana in order to save others). Conventionally their portraits are framed inside circles. Here, two apprentices find the center of a canvas by snapping a pair of diagonal chalk lines. Next, they'll use a compass to mark a circle centered on the intersection of the chalk lines.
Euclid found his way even to Tibet. Or perhaps, Tibet reached him.
Images are first rendered in exquisite line drawings. The unfinished sketches are worthy of framing and hanging.
The artists' skills are remarkable. Moreover, they are permitted to make creative variations within limits of the art form, so no two drawings are alike.
The cartoons are then colored with brilliant paints. The very finest paintings use natural pigments derived from minerals: coral, lapis lazuli, ground gold. Most of the work here uses less expensive paints, no less beautiful for their common origins.
The same images that the painters create are realized by others using a different, unlikely process: appliqué. It begins with a pattern inked onto a piece of silk.
The many regions demarked by inking are made in different colors—sort of paint-by-numbers—using fabric. Each shape is traced, then individual pieces of colored cloth are cut to match.
The edges of each shape are bound with horsehair wrapped in colored silk. Horsehair is used to prevent shrinkage of the edging that otherwise might distort the appliqué.
The horsehair on the right has been wound with red silk thread.
Edging is hand-sewn to each piece. Although the workers shown here happen all to be women, men do this work as well.
Finished pieces are collected into sets for final assembly into finished artwork.
The completed work shown below is a thangka (THAN-kah), a painting or appliquéd artwork that can be hung for display, or rolled up and carried, appropriate for a nomadic people. Thangkas serve as prayer media or as meditation tools. Sometimes people bring theirs to the Dalai Lama or another high Lama for blessing.
This appliquéd thangka bears the image of seven-eyed White Tara, bodhisattva of compassion, longevity, healing and serenity.
Without the efforts being made at Norbulingka, Tibetan art and culture will become lost to the world. The Chinese government pursues a policy of eradicating Tibetan culture. Thousands of temples have been razed, ancient texts have been burned, people have been tortured and killed for demonstrating or promoting their Tibetan-ness. For now at least, we are still able to learn and enjoy their culture.
A government in exile deals with Tibetan affairs from McCleod Ganj. One principal aim of the government there is preservation of Tibetan culture. Refugee children are taught in their native language. A library preserves important works of literature, religion and history. Institutes train young people in traditional arts and crafts: an important one is Norbulingka, located a few miles south of Dharamsala.
A large compound there houses workshops, a temple, gardens, a tea shop and a gift store. A residence, Chonor House, offers overnight accommodations for $40-$70.
The architecture is what you might find in old Lhasa. Buildings look antique, but the institute was built in 1988.
Peaceful gardens separate buildings within the complex. Prayer flags spread good will and compassion to all living beings with each breeze.
A small stupa anchors the center of the gardens. It houses Buddhist relics, among them paintings of deities. Also present are flat rocks bearing painted carvings of prayers. The rocks are called manis—jewels.
Fine details abound. Elephant motifs enliven roof drains—canales to those of us who live in colonial Mexico. Ours seem prosaic by comparison.
A museum offers hundreds of dolls dressed in traditional Tibetan costumes. Admission: 5 Rupees for locals, 20 Rs for foreigners—50¢.
Above, a doll dressed like a holy man receives homage from a spiritual seeker and from a number of woodland creatures as well. He appears to have meditated in his cave for many years.
The museum host, a young Tibetan woman, asked if I knew about California. Then she wanted to know if I had been in Santa Barbara. I explained that my daughter lives there. She tasked me with contacting a realtor the next time I visited there, a man who had sponsored her sister during her flight from Tibet. I am to tell him tashi delek (hello) from her.
A Buddhist temple heads the garden; the gilded roof draws the eye. Wide stone steps flank a stepped cascade fed by snowmelt flowing out of the Himalayas. On a clear day, those great mountains frame the temple roof.
Mindful of being respectful, I put away my camera before removing my shoes and entering the temple. I came upon an Indian family posing on the altar for souvenir photos. Others visitors wandered about photographing the temple's treasures, flashes going off everywhere. Everyone wanted pictures of the 15-foot high gilded Buddha, handcrafted in Norbulingka's own shops.
So much for reverent silence. I pulled out my camera and shot a single flash-free image of the father as he photographed his brood, feeling absolved of any blasphemy. I mean, it's not like the place is the Sistine Chapel or anything.
Buddhists are so easygoing.
Note: For more information, you can visit www.norbulingka.org. The website is exquisite and informative, if a little flash heavy.
I'm visiting a friend in nearby McCleod Ganj, an old British hill station that now serves as the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the home of the Dalai Lama.
A friend of hers loaned her a beautiful house perched on a hill halfway between the two towns. I wake up to the songs of birds and cicadas. During the day, I watch the sun play along the rugged mountains.
The landscape is not what one visualizes when thinking about India. We live among fir forests and rushing streams, in weather sometimes sunny, sometimes misty. McCleod Ganj abuts a wilderness. Snow leopards roam here. The other night a man was mauled by a bear.
No road reaches the house. Every day I must climb a steep path for a few hundred yards to reach Jogibara Road, a narrow track of crumbling pavement that constantly slides into the ravine. The walk into McLeod Ganj makes an elevation gain of hundreds of meters, a situation sure to improve my conditioning.
Others use the path leading upward, which runs through our garden. It works like trespass rights in rural England. People walk within yards of the windows, so I have to wear street dress when I'm at home. Modesty may be more important in India than in Mexico.
Entry to our house is gained by unlocking a primitive padlock, one that could be picked with a hair pin. Yet the place is secure. Neighbors watch out for one another. Strangers are carefully tracked. Residents know everything that goes on in this little settlement.
The interior is pleasant. Locally made furniture and carpets lend a warm and slightly exotic atmosphere. There's no central heating, just like homes in Mexico, but we're situated at the latitude of Pensacola, Florida, and our elevation is a thousand feet less than in San Miguel. Nights are cool, days are warm, even in October.
A two-burner gas hob serves for cooking. We make coffee in a Bailetti espresso maker. We have to boil water before drinking; hence the large pot.
Kitchen cabinets are made from galvanized steel with mesh windows, to keep critters out of the food. In Mexico, we'd set mousetraps. But Dharamsala is Buddhist country. We don't kill animals or insects here.
When traveling abroad, I carry power adaptors, but it's virtually impossible to buy the type that fits Indian sockets. Massive contacts can handle loads of five thousand watts. The things look like they were designed by hyper-conservative British engineers during the Raj—and they probably were.
Gas for our tiny stove comes in small bottles that must be carried down the long, steep path to the house. Thankfully, strong men do this. I probably wouldn't have the strength.
The water heater is electric and holds only a few gallons. We turn it on twenty minutes before showering. It's enough.
It's a Zen brand water heater, "The dependable one." I'm learning to be completely satisfied living more modestly than I did in the States. Here in India, my carbon footprint is very small.
Dharamsala uses buried drain pipes for black water sewage, but they're too small to handle gray water as well. A channel from the house leads to a settling pond and then on to the municipal open sewer system.
Compared with the tumult of Indian towns, we live in a peaceful oasis. A window seat looks out over the garden and onward to the mountains.
Last night we walked home just after sunset. Our valley was in darkness, but the sun was still shining on the Himalayas.
I look at them through my bedroom window. They shine in morning sunlight, peek through ragged mists and clouds in the afternoons, glow in moonlight: a constantly changing scene. Down the road in Dharamsala, the view is more spectacular, not blocked by foothills. But this view is my view. I never imagined I'd ever be lying in bed with these great mountains looming over me.
We're in India, but we're not. Many Tibetan refugees live here. Monasteries and Tibetan Buddhist temples dot the hills.
McCleod Ganj is a refugee town. Indians are here to be sure, as are people from all corners of the world who are interested in the Tibetan issue or in pursuing spiritual growth. But so many faces are Tibetan. Many signs are lettered in the Tibetan language. When I greet an Indian, I say "namaste;" for Tibetans, I say "tashi delek."
Indian? Tibetan? It's a little disorienting.
Popular resort areas no longer offer building space. Today, developers and second home seekers build frenetically in places like booming Sayulita. Those who seek quiet seaside idylls, and who are willing to live with little in the way of markets, restaurants and clubs, look to places like Troncones.
Nearby, crude palapas offer basic (really basic) dining and shelter from the sun. Many other beaches are essentially uninhabited. A gallon of gas gets you solitude if that's what you're seeking.
But if you want a civilized strand devoted to pampering vacationers, you'll be disappointed. At Troncones, you have to share your space with foraging hogs.
Nor are the waters as safe as in established resorts. Open sea produces rough surf, rip tides and undertow. Recently sharks attacked three people, prompting authorities to post warnings. I ignored them.
In the area, small businesses are thinly strung out along Highway 200. At one, Clint stocks up on locally grown mangoes.
Panhandlers are rare in the countryside; they're more likely to inhabit the cities. I was surprised to find one working a tope on the highway. Drivers must slow for the speed bump or lose their suspensions, providing him opportunities to solicit donations.
Troncones has a couple of restaurants. They're pretty rough. A sign in one, directing patrons left or right to the appropriate restroom, says it all. The burro suggests dissipation, discouraging to a high minded person such as myself. Well, all right. A reformed low-minded person.
Cleaning implements imply attention to matters of sanitation, perhaps at the expense of atmosphere. El Burro Borracho makes a good breakfast, though: eggs, frijoles, panela cheese, avocado, fresh tortillas, fresh orange juice and coffee. Under five bucks.
Just north of the village, a former plantation has been subdivided into lots, many of them beachfront. No homes have been constructed yet, but they won't be far behind. Lots are priced around $250,000. Believe it or not, that's low. The first phase is sold out.
Solitude never lasts.
The nearest beaches are nearly a day's drive away. I can drive to Puerto Vallarta in seven or eight hours. Zihuatenejo takes longer. Tolls and gas make driving expensive: I spent about $200 US round trip between San Miguel and Manzanillo. Potholes and topes batter the car. In some parts of the country, police attempt extortion, threatening to impound my car for some manufactured infraction. Dealing with them is unpleasant.
I like the alternative: Mexico has a bus system that will take you anywhere cheaply. I always take the first class ETN bus to Mexico City, avoiding the corrupt traffic cops drawn like flies to my Texas plates. (I have been stopped every time I have driven in the State of Mexico.)
Getting to Zihuatenejo by bus is easy. You take the 10 PM Flecha Amarilla bus from San Miguel to Celaya and transfer there to the midnight Primera Plus bus for Ixtapa/Zihuatenejo. Climb aboard, deploy the footrest, recline the first-class seat for sleeping, and wake up at 7:30 AM surrounded by sand and palm trees. You get a good night's sleep and gain an extra day of relaxation instead of spending it driving.
The image shows the interior of a Primera Plus bus: four deeply upholstered seats across and television monitors where airline-type (i. e., puerile) movies play. The more luxurious ETN buses seat three across and the movie sound track is piped through headphones so you don't have to listen to it.
One feature needs pointing out. Check out the red light shining above the door in front. That light mysteriously flickers on and off. I asked what it's for. Well, it's a safety feature required by law in all highway buses. Whenever the driver exceeds the mandated speed limit of 95 kilometers per hour, the light comes on. This is so that frightened or outraged passengers can report the driver to the authorities.
Only a committee could have come up with such a scheme. Drivers are not intimidated at all: the light is on almost constantly. Nobody bothers to report speeders anyway. We know that an illuminated red light assures us we'll all arrive just a little sooner.
Today I still love going to the beach. I don't lie around tanning anymore, and I drank my last coco loco many years ago. But I like the sound of waves, the smell of salt water and the feel of warm water on my body. And I like someone bringing me fish tacos and a coke right to the umbrella I'm sitting beneath.
For that kind of relaxation, Playa Los Gatos, on the southern side of the harbor at Zihuatenejo fills the bill.
No road leads to Playa Los Gatos. To get there, you hire a boat for the short, inexpensive ride from the pier at Zihuatenejo.
Blinding white sand (limestone?) leaves the surf milky blue. A score of palapa restaurants crowd every inch of the strand. Settping from your boat onto the mole, a shill grabs you by the hand and steers you to the place that employs him. As near as I can tell, the selection, quality and prices of each are identical, so aggressive salesmanship brings in the customers.
Every place is fronted with umbrellas casting unbroken shade from one end of the beach to the other. The first twenty meters inland from the water's edge is devoted to cosseting visitors. I lounged for awhile, then I looked past the tourist zone to see how the restaurant owners live.
During daytime, families spend their days on the beach along with the rest of us. They take their meals in their restaurants and for relaxation, swing in hammocks. Unlike us, they wear street clothes, not bathing suits, because the water is always there for them—no big deal.
At night they sleep in shacks hidden in the jungle.
Their homes are little more elaborate than campsites, but they're kept immaculate. They hang hand-washed laundry out to dry. They sweep the sand clean. The environment is exactly right for living: no heat, no air conditioning needed.
And as in nearly all Mexican homes, the beach dwellers make altars venerating the Virgin.
I can't see how palapa restaurant owners make enough to live on. When I was there, they competed for the business of only a handful of customers. Many appeared to make no sales that day. Two weeks at Christmas, one week at Easter—everybody does well then. The rest of the year, I imagine they barely scrape by.
But life is pleasant here. Plenty of fish are free for the taking; boys fish off the mole with hand lines. A small yellowfin tuna and a kilo of tortillas will feed a family of four. Beach people have no income taxes, no traffic jams, no performance reviews. Nobody works too hard. They appear to be content and happy.
Why are we here? Well, Paul (El Guapo) had heard that the greatest surfing destination in the entire world had been recently discovered on the coast near Técoman.
Paul is prone to hyperbole. For which reason I was disinclined to drive there, but we try to accommodate each other's objectives when we travel together. I wanted to see the salt museum, Paul wanted to see the world's greatest surfing spot. Tit for tat.
We found the surfing beach.
It was not the world's greatest surfing spot. The surf was unremarkable. Nearby restaurants and lodgings looked sad and decayed. A lonely surfer dude tried to spare change me. Looked like the excursion was a bust, but not to Paul's discredit. We venture into new situations together. Occasionally we strike gold; more often we strike out.
We found little else to recommend Técoman. The city sports a hideous sculpture at the entrance to town. All Mexican cities are required to erect these monuments. I think it's a law.
Técoman's is bigger than most.
Our fruitless foray onto the beach left us hungry and in the traveler's dilemma: Where can we find a good restaurant? We asked a trio of teenage girls outside a drugstore. Mamá came out as we were talking to them, took one look at our disreputable-looking selves, shooed the girls inside and gave us directions to a slum on the far side of town. Undoubtedly she was hoping that we would get lost and not trouble her daughters ever again.
Working our way back to the center of town, I spotted a red awning bearing the word carnitas. All right! You just can't go wrong with carnitas. To borrow the old joke about pizza. Carnitas is like sex; when it's good, it's very, very good, and when it's bad—it's still pretty good.
Red plastic Coca-Cola tablecloths, white molded plastic Coca-Cola chairs, takeout customers clustered around the owner while he chopped and packaged their orders: we knew this place was going to be good.
Paul meditates on the essence of pork.
Carnitas is that savory Mexican dish: pig boiled in lard. The meat is cooked way beyond well done. Cartilage develops a soft texture, excess fat is rendered away, flavors concentrate. It's incredibly delicious.
Carnitas is cooked in large tubs. After cooking, the rendered fat looks like used crankcase oil. Best not to look.
But I could see that the owner scrubs his cookware to a high shine every day. For a carnitas joint, this place was scrupulously clean.
I ordered a half-kilo for the two of us. You can get whatever part of the pig you want: loin, shoulder, belly, intestines. I ordered my favorite: ribs.
(In Guanajuato I once saw an entire boiled pig lying on a marble counter, with price tags stuck into its various parts. In that shop, some parts of the hog cost more than others.)
Our meal came with homemade salsa and pickled vegetables. Carnitas are usually eaten by putting some on a freshly made tortilla (with your fingers) and adding salsa and vegetables.
And of course you'll want to salt them. Carnitas need salt; in my opinion plenty of it. And the salt served in this place was that wonderful Espuma del Mar salt we'd seen being hand-harvested at the Cuyutlán lagoon.
What a find! The meal was delicious. These carnitas were every bit as good as Vicente's in Dolores Hidalgo. (Vicente's is the gold standard.)
The place had no name. Just a marquee announcing carnitas. Not to worry about finding it though: just drive southeast on MEX 200 libre to the center of Técoman and look for the red awning on a corner on the right. You can't miss it.
So our excursion wasn't a bust after all, and that's the way it often goes when traveling the narrow roads. You may not find what you're looking for, but often you find something else just as good.
The next day, we went to the Port of Manzanillo, an exciting place full of container ships, cranes and freight trains. I wanted to collect material for a post on the facility. While I waited in our illegally parked car under the gaze of an unamused security guard, unshaven Paul marched into the office of the harbormaster in his rumpled shorts, half-buttoned shirt and huaraches to ask permission to enter the port and maybe even get a tour.
The harbormaster took one look at him and said:
1. You may not enter the port facilities for any reason.
2. If you take pictures of the port from outside the perimeter fence, you will be arrested.
3. Go away.
Well all right then.
Paul spent the last afternoon in Manzanillo relaxing on the beach in front of our house.
Goo Goo G'joob.
When I retired, I wanted to take car trips all over the United States. As a child, I remember how different Texas was from New Jersey. But fifty years later, the Interstate Highway System was built our and our country had become homogenized. Most places looked pretty much like every other.
There are many wonderful places in the United States: Glacier National Park, Tucson, New York, Washington. But in between all those places, there's only limited-access freeways and chain restaurants.
Mexico is building its equivalent of the interstates, the cuotas, and they benefit the country just as much as ours did. But there's lots of backcountry here, and I find myself following the lure of the small roads just the way I wanted to years ago.
The toll road, the cuota, is about as interesting as I-80 near Iowa City. The two-lane coastal highway has far more going for it. Called the libre (no tolls), drivers must watch out for topes (speed bumps) and highballing dobles remolques (tandem semis). But for their trouble, they get a close look at rural Mexico.
Along the libre, no Arbys or Day's Inns dull the mind. Every business establishment is unique. Here's one that offers homemade beverages (ponche), coconut candies (alfajor obleas) and hand-harvested sea salt. Not available north of the border.
Professionally produced signage is an exception to the usual amateur efforts hawking comida corrida or cerveza bien frio. No one can say this graphic designer is afraid of color.
Thirty miles southeast of Manzanillo lies the pueblo of Cuyutlán. People make ladrillas (bricks) there.
Mexicans use bricks the way we use Douglas fir studs up north. They're a universal building material. Given the demand, you'd think some businessman would manufacture them in a huge automated factory. Maybe someone does. But in my travels I've seen only small ladrilleras employing handfuls of people, maybe no more than the members of a single family.
Bricks are made the old-fashioned way—via backbreaking labor: Take some wet clay and pack it into wooden molds with your hands, one brick at a time.
After they've dried in the sun, the brickmaker stacks the bricks in porous pyramids that resemble precolumbian ruins. Openings at the bottoms of the temple-like stacks are fire doors for admitting fuel during firing. The doors employ the ancient Mayan korbeled arch, with cantilevered lintels instead of keystones.
As firing begins, a worker mixes mud for chinking gaps in order to regulate combustion and retain heat. Finger marks in the mud give evidence he works without trowel or other tools.
Another worker (this one in need of a belt) adds fuel—coconut husks. Many large plantations hereabouts provide a ready source of free energy.
When the fire is burning at the proper intensity, the firedoor is closed with more stacked bricks.
The stack cooks for about 24 hours, then allowed to cool. Finished bricks are loaded onto heavy flatbed trucks and taken to a busy intersection where the drivers await customers, often homeowners who are building their houses one wall at a time as construction money becomes available. Sometimes houses take many years to build. I see families living roofless inside four brick walls, a blue tarpaulin keeping off the rain. I remind myself: these people are homeowners.
As a privileged gringo who doesn't have to stick his hands in wet mud all day, the idea of using coconut-husk fired handmade bricks in my house gives me a romantic, back-to-basics feel. I'd proudly point out the primitive construction methods to my north-of-the-border visitors; show them how much more organic my house is than their vinyl-sided ranchers. Well, I wouldn't do that, but I'd be tempted.
But I'm aware brickmakers eke out livings just above the poverty level. They'd be better off economically with a salaried job working in an automated Cemex cinderblock plant. Then they could afford to drive new pickup trucks up the cuota to Manzanillo and shop at Wal-Mart. And get a burger at McDonalds.
And they grow coconuts. My, how they grow coconuts.
You see piles of them at fruit stands in every pueblo; green coconuts sold for their milk. For a few pesos, the shopkeeper whacks at the end of a green coconut with a heavy knife and sticks a straw in it. Drink up. Upscale stands offer coconuts bien frio—well chilled.
The vendors I met had all their fingers—remarkable considering they secure nuts with one hand and lop the ends off with overhand swings of their machetes.
Coconut plantations are elegant and serene. Orderly rows of tall palms stretch off into the distance, quietly absorbing the tropical sun and converting it into large fruits. Many orchards recently have been interplanted with limas dulces to increase productivity, as in the image below.
Workers load trucks and trailers with husked coconuts. They burn the husks, a dubious practice in my opinion. I would think that returning them to the soil would increase fertility.
These coconuts are destined to be processed into copra; dried coconut meat that eventually will be pressed to extract the oil.
(As a kid, I dreamt about hiring onto a tramp steamer engaged in the South Pacific copra trade. It sounded exotic, but probably was just gritty hard work.)
Hazards on Colima highways include crawling tractors pulling trailers full of coconuts. Behind them, impatient drivers place their lives in las manos del Dios, passing on curves and hills.
Fieldworkers travel to and from plantations on stakebed trucks, hopefully avoiding encounters with cars passing slow tractors. Note the rear springs of this truck are fully bottomed out, rendering it barely maneuverable.
The guy second from the right gave me a friendly salute as I shot this image. I love how friendly people are here.
A truck full of limas dulces awaits a driver. Rosario, my housekeeper, makes an agua fresca (a fresh fruit drink) from them during the brief season they're in the mercados.
Tropical fruit plants look otherworldly to me. Apple trees seem staid and frumpy in comparison. Papayas (left) are sensual—perhaps a forbidden fruit. Mangoes hang unaccountably from long stems. Why does the plant invest so much energy in stem-growing?
Driving through California as a young man, I was fascinated by endless orchards along US 99, and huge vegetable fields in the Salinas Valley. In the '60s, California produced well over half the fresh produce in the entire United States. Today, food production in Mexico is at least as intense. Representing only 4% of the economy, it employs a fifth of the workforce, not including subsistence farmers.
U. S. immigration restrictions now create shortages of farmworkers. American growers respond by shifting production south of the border. Somehow I haven't heard howls from those usually concerned about outsourcing of American jobs. But that's probably because nobody wants to work in the fields anyway.
Mexico may become America's breadbasket.