Magical Mexico

(Photo by: Jami Buck-Vance)

ATTN: A full-length book collection of travel writing by Han Vance is to be published in 2018.

Magical Mexico – originally for hanvance.com

A day removed from a pit of Mexican fire in my stomach, which burned bright with tequila and salt, I comfortably reflect on Zona Polanco in the Federal District of Mexico, DF, for short. Think of our DC, meets NYC.

Polanco, in effect the Beverly Hills of Mexico, from Burberry to Gucci to my favorite, the eclectic Common People where we bought beautiful soaps and bath salts and a brightly-colored magnet of the Lady of Guadalupe, radiant against a red background. That’s Mexico for you these days: radiant and resiliently shining always, yet against a red background of worsening drug violence. We didn’t see many other Americans during the trip but generally felt fairly safe.

Mexico City boasts more density than New York City while it is vaster than North American land giant Los Angeles, with a total population roughly equal to both of those biggest of United States cities combined. Thirty million people hived around us seeing about their day, while the affluence of Zona Polanco was perhaps most striking. The pedigreed pooches in sweaters and bows, with well-coiffed and attired owners in tow, themselves with expensive sweaters tied around their necks, so Euro. The rolling tree-canopied park and the finest shopping, the restaurants where I found so many friendly tables.

Past the biggest flag I’ve ever seen, one Zona over is the giant park, with the public lake where families and couples cruise on peddled boats, the museums and street food vendors. On a Sunday afternoon, we strolled amongst thousands, one street vendor saying, “Wow,” at the significant beauty of my lady, as the sugar of the churros stuck to our hands.

We stopped in for a tangy margarita at a swank spot playing NFL games and then were given a free ride back to our hotel in their comfy courtesy van…the big city night still awaiting us.

Fitting that I’d just bought a souvenir folk art miniature Mexican cantina in Cuernavaca, I thought later, as we explored the nightlife in Mexico City, with somewhat mixed results. Our credit card stopped working and required a phone call to rev back up at what could have been an inopportune moment, and the tequila eventually hit me too hard.

Before all this was the mansion once owned by the lovely Hollywood actress Brigitte Bardot in Cuernavaca, Land of Eternal Spring, where we stayed in the guest quarters. Cuernavaca is a city of around one million, an escape from Mexico City, a city behind gated walls, which opened to reveal large homes with majestic gardens and outdoor spaces.

The place we stayed was cobalt and white and flowing and as majestic in taste and decoration as any I’ve seen below the border, a shrine to all that is good about Mexico, and there really is so much.

The smell of steaming tamales removed from foil and banana leaves, for breakfast. The memories flood through me, of Texas relatives whom loved the culture. The feel of being seated outside under a temperate sky and consuming cold Mexican beer with limes sliced sideways, with the woman I truly love. The thronging Zocalo and the reverence and spectacle of Mexico’s churches, the taste of piquant salsa verde and wholesome handmade tortillas. The art and color – yellow, cobalt blue, galaxy blue, Aztec blue, pink, hot pink, red, orange all popping against the expected browns and tans. My single favorite art piece I saw was the Diego Rivera mural depicting the history of the state of Morelos, which filled the largest walls in the main public building in Cuernavaca’s downtown.

To-and-fro Cuernavaca, we traveled by luxury bus, from the airport in DF, where we shared our first Mexican meal, a delicious bistec torta (steak sandwich). The city is mammoth from the air and feels enormous while navigated by auto. Housing packed on top of shallow stores and restaurants selling food and goods to the multitudinous masses. Soccer facilities and parks along the graffiti-splashed Metro train line, as we bounced in the bus through the crush of traffic.

Followed by the rurality of mountains and fields of hay that is most of the land in the nation of Mexico. Coming into Cuernavaca, we felt the energy rise again. And life did pulse there, with the same Mexican fire that we felt of the biggest city in the world, 100 years after the revolution, 200 years after declaring independence from Spain.

Students flock to Cuernavaca to study Spanish; while Capitalinos (as residents of DF are known) retreat the short distance to Cuernavaca for cleaner air and relative calm. Mariachi players wait near the Zocalo in full uniform ready to be rented to play. And a raucous mid-day celebration once swept us up, a tipsy local painted as an Indian for the festivities putting his arm around me as he introduced himself and his less than pleased date, while we charged down the cobblestone street with them. He told me I should have been out there at 10 a.m.

The silver town of Taxco that we visited on a day trip was brimming with humanity – flooding narrow city streets, full of pedestrians and vehicles and thousands of shops, every structure white with only black-lettered signage. There, I prayed in the most ornate church I’ve ever seen and then had a drink at the rooftop bar across the plaza. Next, dinner included chicken enchiladas and a hilltop view of the entire village from a large restaurant/hotel.

Our last night in Cuernavaca, fireworks bombastically filled the sky from the club next door, as we finished with fine dining in a gorgeous open-air restaurant. The Mexican night air felt so perfect to us, under the candle and lamplight. And we anticipated the frenetic energy of the megalopolis of DF, which was again on our agenda.

Back inside the mansion that night, we settled in to fall asleep and then were at one point suddenly awakened to noises on the tiled ceiling. We moved to the kitchen, and two curious creatures called coatis glanced at us through a window from atop the property’s wall, before one bounded over the other as they exited our view, the magic of Mexico plainly evident to us.

Up On Ponce (C) 2013 HV:

Up On Ponce:

Mammas Are Chocolate Milk

Cheap American Swill

Is The High Life

And Thomas Cheshire

Will Always Be A Hero

Races, Classes, Demographics

Whites, Blacks, Hispanics

Neon-Lit Classics

Against An Old Marquis

And Just Me, See

Boozers, Cruisers And Stone Cold Losers

Atlanta, Georgia ~ Deep South

Plus, That Damn 2 Bus

Where They Ripped The Pioneer Heart

Out Of Our Fair City

Divided We Ain’t, Y’all

Summer-Winter-Spring-Fall

We All Do, Hear-I

Talkin’ ‘Bout Love

And A Revolution

Watch Wheels Spin Round

I Skyscrape Devotion

Center Of Town

We are champions, my friends

I have one ring. Well, not really a ring but one team championship. And I won it as quarterback of the Cowboys.

When I moved from the great Empire of Texas to the Southeast, Dad initially settled us into another state with great pride, South Carolina. South Carolinians, like Louisianans and Nebraskans, place value of state above most else.

Scary to think that I could’ve been a USC Cock and never a UGA DAWG. But we stayed in Carolina only one year, netting me my first little brother and Dad a YMCA basketball championship as head coach. I was around that team throughout the season and remember the oversized maroon jersey I wore to their games, and the pride I felt when the title was secured in a close final contest.

Both of my personal sports titles came the next year when we moved to a sleepy suburban Atlanta town called Marietta, GA. I hung around the Boys Club there all the time and won a basketball shooting tournament for my age group. I am and will forever be the 1976 Shooting Champion, and I still have the trophy to prove it – although the ball is no longer attached to the hand.

Before that, I played for the Cowboys. I’m a third-generation, diehard Dallas Cowboys fan, and I planned to play for them up through 8th grade, when I started exploring a few back-up options and stopped practicing twice a day year round. Wide receiver has always been my natural position, but in 1st grade the ball is not thrown much if at all, so Dad suggested I play quarterback that year in football. I did, and we ran the option and won the league. When the season started, Dad must have lobbied to get me on the Cowboys, but he never admitted it and only twinkle-eyed as he – I reckoned – lied in denial.

My best friend in the whole world and sandlot football buddy was an outrageous kid named Duke Lee Sharp Jr.; he went by Boomer. I saw him on weekends, when he visited his (practically our) Granny, in my neighborhood.

During the week, I went to Fair Oaks Elementary where I had two best school friends. A triangle of friends that were by far the top athletes in our grade. Lester Maddox was a descendant of the infamous anti-segregationist politician by the same name. Champ was the nephew of Larry Holmes, then the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the world. And I was the offspring of wealthy hippies whom had only recently spent all the money my father inherited from my grandfather.

Dad asked me about my buddies at school. He knew those names and guffawed, then he sang to me: “The times, they are a changin’.” I’d never in a cognizant way heard of the champion of freedom named Bob Dylan, because my parents only listened to the Beatles and classical music. I liked that and much later became a poet myself.

(Photo by: Han Vance)

Spectacle: Of Montreal and Janelle Monae

I was in rewrite of my memoir and working as a late night server at Cafe’ Intermezzo on Peachtree Street in Atlanta when first I saw her. Her image immediately captivated me: pompadoured hair I adored and a cool cardigan framing her perfect pixie face.

A few weeks later, I waited on her and her entourage, including Nate “Rocket” Wonder – the man of sound behind her veritable wall of sound. We shared our stories of forays into art, of our efforts to bloom in an ATL that boomed around us.

Many years earlier, as I waited for takeout at The Grit restaurant in Athens, GA, I overheard Kevin Barnes speaking of his band, Of Montreal. The name struck my fancy, and I vowed to give them a listen and did.

A few years later while visiting a friend in Athens, I became acquainted with Of Montreal bassist Davey Pierce due to a collective affinity for scooter/moped crews and was inspired to dig further into their vast repertoire of recordings.

In Atlanta on November 6, 2010, my fandom of both acts culminated in a live show in Little Five Points that confirmed Georgia’s artistic musicality. Variety Playhouse was the venue, and never has that name been more fitting.

Janelle’s sharp looks and frenetic dance moves accentuated rather than overshadowed her music: an invented modern neo-soul meets songbird eclecticism that seemingly explains the rich American history of black music, while searching for the future. Even those unfamiliar with her in the audience recognized her rhythmic power and were awed by her singular voice – Janelle can really sing. Backed by tight musicians, she wound up the taut set with the stripped down single “Many Moons” and the romping hit “Tightrope,” as I tipped to the dance hook.

Deserving of an encore, there was one, a “La-La-La” singalong performed from stage to floor, reminiscent of the party energy of The B-52’s “Rock Lobster.” As Janelle’s rocking band crescendoed, she departed and the lights came on. I gave a shout out to Nate Wonder on the intermission and met some cute Chattanooga college kids in the big city South for the show.

The spectacle reached greater proportion as the headline act took the stage, seven musicians accompanying the lanky, fey, practically pansexual Kevin Barnes. The set started with the new album’s debut single “Coquet Coquette”, followed by an old fav of mine, “Suffer for Fashion.”

(Photo by: Han Vance)

Multi-costumed dancers, incredible video montage and the unbridled bouncing energy of Mr. Barnes pushed the show into the stratosphere. I was more overstimulated than a cokehead, more tripped out than an acid head, full of punch drunk love – as lifted as a sober man can be.

The theater only intensified as the band played good songs old and new. Kevin is a character on the level of Bowie or Prince, and he lives to push the envelope. At one point, his face broadcast from a giant cardboard TV set aliens assembled to watch. At another, he encouraged two feuding skeletons to kiss and makeup.

As the dream of a set ended, feathers filled the air, propelled from an alien’s head. I thought to myself: Earth is a pretty far out planet.

The band returned – beers in hand – to satiate the raucous crowd, while Kevin popped bubbly. I wondered what they could possibly do next. A Michael Jackson medley met and exceeded my encore expectations, especially as Janelle and the rest of the Wondaland Arts Society joined the fray, with my mate Nate on sticks, resplendent in his signature look of perfect dreads and a tux.

This lovely art was created here; Georgia as epicenter of modern music.

20 great things about The South:

1.Southern Girls (and other friendly folks)

2.ATL’s ROCKET SHIP Architecture

3.College Football, y’all

4.N’awlins’ Food

5.Charleston Flavor

6.”30 A” Beaches of the Florida Panhandle – especially Rosemary Beach

7.The Smoky Mountains in autumn

8.Sweet Tea, Grits, Biscuits, BBQ

9.America’s Teams: (the Dallas Cowboys and the Atlanta Braves)

10.Southern Literary Tradition: William Faulkner, Tom Wolfe, Gone with the Wind, the Decatur Book Festival, Grisham, urban ATL poetry scene, me

11.ELVIS (Memphis, Tupelo)

12.The BeltLine (Atlanta)

13.ATL and Athens Music Scenes – from Outkast to Mastodon to Rhianna to REM to SVA to Of Montreal to the B-52s, from the Tabernacle to Chastain to the 40watt club to TI to Music Hates You, from Pylon to Black Lips to “Superman those hos.”

14.Twilight Criterium (Athens)

15.Lowtide at Tybee Island (GA)

16.The Live Music Capital of the World  (Keep Austin Weird)

17.Mommas

18.Vulcan (Birmingham)

19.Deepdene Park -of the Olmstead Linear Parks (Atlanta)

20.Taco Stand (Athens)

Seven Atlanta Favorites:

1. Deepdene Park – The last of the Olmstead Linear Parks to be finished, it offers a duality of coin to the other parks in this chain, which are pastoral in park type and on the opposite side of Ponce de Leon Avenue. Deepdene is walking through the woods, and in the Deep South of The ATL that is a truly gorgeous thing. Frederick Law Olmstead designed Central Park in NYC and Piedmont Park in Atlanta. Olmstead Linear Parks was incomplete at the time of Frederick’s passing. However, his descendants and strong neighborhood and community support ensured that the task saw completion. This is what an Atlanta park can be at its best.

2. Flux (in Castleberry Hill) – Rock out to this most important of all ATL art neighborhoods, all done up in light, for one night per year. Previously entitled Le Flash, Jami and I vow not to miss this annual event.

3. HAWKS games – See and be seen amongst the Atlanta elite in the floor seats; catch a drink at the Absolut bar and Headliners. Then watch 6th-man-of-the-year-Jamal Crawford score at will off the bench, Joe Johnson be unstoppable on offense, Josh Smith (“J-Smoove”) soar and dunk and swat, Marvin for “3” and steady vet Mike Bibby running the floor. Throw in a Za Za for good measure – he is from the country of Georgia and also owns wine and food spot Eno (Midtown on Peachtree Street), now called Eno by Za Za. The Playoffs Are Coming. Take MARTA directly to the arena, 2nd stop on the westbound trains from Five Point’s Station. My girl is into it too.

4. COLLEGE FOOTBALL – From watching the SEC Championship Game live to sitting at home and watching on our TV sets, Atlanta is the undeniable world headquarters of American College Football and a short drive to ATHENS, home of the Georgia Dawgs and my alma mater, UGA, the oldest public college in the USA. My fellow alum girlfriend is really getting into it.

5. FOOD – Atlanta has become a major foodie restaurant scene – and I love to eat out, with my girl, of course.

6. LongBoarding Freedom Trail – Thank you, President Carter and MLK Jr. – You built this road and trail with your words. When I’m flying free on the trail, I feel so alive and awake and in love with life in Atlanta, y’all.

7. Pub Crawls on Ponce – See my boy Ed at El Bar for a shake-shake-shake after a few pops at Righteous Room, maybe a grilled cheese with sprouts and a side for $5 at the Righteous and a PBR with lime or mixed adult beverage while I play Joy division on the jukebox. After El Bar gets too crowded to dance, The Local and Bookhouse Pub can both be good hangs. Friends is probably the best gay hangout for straight people to gain education via jukeboxation. MJQ is still a great Wednesday dance spot for the best DJs. Dugans has great wings if you want them. And the Clermont Lounge is still open, although they finally closed the Clermont Hotel itself to the public. Still hungry as I walk home after maybe skipping those wings? The Majestic has been open 24-hours a day since 1929.

(Photo by: Han Vance)