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

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.


(Photo by: Han Vance)

The day I moved from Marietta proper to the more distant suburbs, a punk rocker juvenile delinquent named Chris Damico was building a small wooden skateboard ramp in the street that led to my new culdesac. Though I had never ridden a skate ramp before, I’d picked up street skating about a year earlier as the sport hit a second wave of major national popularity in the mid 1980s.

It was the heat of a Southern summer, and most of my like-aged friends were living closer to the Marietta Square. I was living way out in the vast stretching sprawl of what had been previously rural, then exurban, and finally suburban Cobb County, in what was then known to be the fastest-growing civilization in the history of mankind: greater metropolitan Atlanta.

My siblings were a good bit younger than I, and I found myself with no one cool to regularly hang out with when I was not at work as a fine-dining busboy at The Planter’s restaurant. By mid-summer, my friend Doug got a Chevy Nova and was the first to get a license. He started picking me up, and I was back hanging with my old crew of friends. Before that, I skated with Damico everyday.

We grew apart, Damico and I, but we talked from time to time. Then when I was a senior, his mom moved out of the school district, and he talked my brothers and folks into letting him ride out the school year living with us. I thought it was a terrible idea, but the decision was made before I had any input. He bunked with my brothers.

For the first time, we became truly close friends. My epic high school career was winding down, so we decided to have a huge graduation party as a last hurrah. We set a date and gathered friends from neighboring schools, like Dave Weiss, at my house for a meeting and told them to tell their friends and friends of friends from many of the schools across the county.

A week before the party my parents went out of town for one night, so we threw an impromptu gathering. Hundreds of kids from my school showed up and lined my entire street with cars and trash. I paid my brothers to clean up the mess after, but I was immensely worried. We didn’t have access to enough space for the coming big graduation party, and my folks’ plans to go out of town again were suddenly cancelled. We were screwed.

My mom and stepdad’s yard at the time led to a stretch of woods that eventually led to fields behind a huge western store called Horsetown. Damico came up with the idea to rent these fields, and in a meeting in which the outcome still baffles me to this day they agreed to lease us the property for a night. We paid them a small amount of money and assured them it would be a calm affair.

As the day approached, I distributed flyers amongst the upperclassmen at my school listing my address as the location for an “Adult Graduation Party.” A teacher found one and said I could not go on with the plan, but I scoffingly told him I was eighteen and the party was the day after school ended. It was out of his jurisdiction.

My friend Todd Smalley’s band the Wild Onions agreed to play the event, and I made him promise not to reveal the real location of the party to anyone at our school. He kept my secret at Lassiter; meanwhile we called our party planning colleagues and told them to tell everyone to be at my house by 5:00 p.m.

We hung a sign on my basketball goal on the day of the fest that said: “Go To HORSETOWN.” We were there well off the street and obscured from visibility with the rock band playing as the thousands and thousands of kids began to show up. As the sun set, the traffic continued to stream into the fields. We positioned paid parking attendants in the drive to charge admission for vehicles and made hundreds of dollars over the field rental. Interestingly, Damico and I both later worked for years in the management of the parking industry.

Of course, the cops came that night. We heard it told that for a few hours they could not find the exact party location. When they did attempt to bust the party, it still went on for over an hour as they simply directed traffic out while making very few arrests for underage drinking. When the crowd finally started to thin, we grabbed as many cute girls as would follow us and led them back through the woods to the relative safety of my house.

For weeks after, we were the reigning stars of the county. I began to commonly hear the term “Hanfest” and wondered who’d coined it. About a month later, I was hanging out with my artist friend Mike Tom. He told me he’d hand-painted a sign at the entrance of the Horsetown fields that said: “HANFESTIVAL.”

Hawaii (a different world)

Welcome to Hawaii:

The mountain roads to Holualoa winding upward through lush vegetation and small rural housing, it had me reminiscing about the time I toured inland Puerto Rico with my father and one of my brothers. We reached Holualoa and were immediately astounded by the number of art galleries in such a small town, at most, really just a little village. Holualoa exists around two of my passions: art and coffee.

Off of Main Street, a tropical tree-lined gorgeous bed-and-breakfast, Holualoa Inn. The lack of a wall separating the living room from the lush green lawn and outside grounds first struck me. This was a different world.

Hawaii fruit

Jade Lemons and the Crimson Lust at 529

Tommy the Tomcat is back. Jade Lemons, the mastermind behind the Underrated Records label and studio, debuted his new act at 529 in the East Atlanta Village. A few spots around EAV had decent crowds, as a weekend summer night down South buzz was in the air. My sister, Anna and photog friend, Marc were on the scene with me as we stopped in for a quick one at the newly-reopened Glenwood. Then Mr. Lemons appeared crossing the street in Captain’s hat and his signature skinny jeans, blonde beauty in tow all dolled up. He was headlining, and his mom was on hand. His friends and fans were on hand. His new material was ready for its first public consumption. He delivered to the full venue with the help of a band totaling five pieces, counting Jade, and you should because the dude rocks. Sallow, gauntly thin, tall and intensely transposed on guitar and lead vocal against a punk-looking black girl playing bass, a classic-in-delivery accompanying singer, also of color, white dudes wailing on sax and pounding on drums – this is real now Atlanta music. Yet, Ziggy Stardust meets T-Rex’s Marc Bolan again is what I most hear in obvious classic influence. Familiar and good songs, the first time heard. Though this group is worthy of a bigger venue soon and Jade clearly couldn’t hear his monitors well on stage, the short performance came off as well-rehearsed and of crystal clear quality. This band is only a key hit song away from being at least a minor household name, as this new formula for Jade works. I predict a big future for them.

(Photo by: Wizard Smoke)

Play it forward

Today is National Pay it Forward Day. So, I helped a temporarily homeless new friend with an application this morning before heading to the park for a shoot-around. I have hoops fever and am back to my old hard-court and gym rat ways, suddenly. Game last night netted a loss to the 6-time defending league champions and a reality check in terms of the team length required to compete in competitive basketball. My box score was this as 6th man and player/coach: 3 of 7 shooting, 2 of 3 on free throw attempts, 8 points, 3 hard fouls, 2 steals, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. I could have played better, of course, but if you extrapolate that out to a full game where the clock actually stops, I’d have had some seriously awesome stats. I actually shot a bit worse than that looks, but I was fouled on 2 of my shots (1 of which I converted into a sweet 3-point play). When you’re fouled on a shot it doesn’t count as an attempt. First time I’ve played in a league in 7 years.

I slightly sprained my ankle before the game while practicing a running behind the back pass. Notes to self: showboating is bad. Sportsmanship and the sporting life are good. Speaking of that: I saw the great poet Jon B. Goode today. Ever since UGA had a good season and made the NCAA Tourney and I went to the Hawks playoff win with my lady, I’ve been on geek for playing ball, and then my season finally started. I wanted to play again today, so I backpacked and biked it over to the park and shot a few, a few like hundred jumpers, free throws, hook shots.

I was set to leave and then decided to clean all the trash from the park. As I did, a car rolled up full of some of the top poets in the ATL – making them some of the top American poets, period. Jon and Xpj and Tommy Bottoms from the hot scene at Urban Grind and then some other good folks I believed I was meeting for the first time. I may have met that gorgeous Tasha before, or just wished I had. Anyway, Jon is getting married. I’m getting married. Life is moving forward. Pay it forward today, y’all.

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)

The 4 types of elopement

(Photo by: Han Vance, Hotel Oceana)

We each came to understand that we wanted to be together forever, well before we dared to utter. Then we did, eventually, and it was just letting the truth out more than it was any sort of a revelation. And considering I was still in rewrite and final edit of my Cali travel adventure memoir at the time, we – I – postponed. It was untoward to move forward while clinging back like I was. And a memoir is nothing if not a cling back, especially when one of the strong themes of said memoir is divorce.

Speaking of divorce, she’d been through it, too. More recently, so her wounds were fresher. Mine were deeper, as I’d made grave mistakes last time around and though we all fall – I’d really fallen and failed. And I have two children; she has none.

Of note: we were married in the same facility in Atlanta, just not to the final spouse. This is final. This is real. This is forever. Forever – ever…

Her mom’s in poor health and shouldn’t travel. We’ve both done the whole big wedding thing before. We both know everybody and would have to offend or invite everybody. So, elopement was an obvious choice.

We traveled to Augusta and being a Southern gentleman I asked her dad, the Colonel’s permission, and he gave consent.

Dreaming of getting married in a beautiful out of country location like on a beach in Mexico or in the rainforest in Vancouver. Means legally nothing in the United States of America. You have to do it again, and we are trying not to do too much. So, USA.

The Texas hill country spawned me and is one of the least known-for-its-beauty, breathtakingly beautiful spots in America. It’s far enough – Charleston is not, Rosemary Beach is not – but Austin is not a beach. Hawaii is something we did last year to great expense and exhausted elation; we want a relaxation vacation. Since I’ve traveled Cali extensively, Jami said pick a place that’s not LA yet in Cali, maybe. So, Santa Barbara, the American Riviera.

And the Spanish-tiled Santa Barbara County Courthouse is noted as the prettiest government building in America. So, there.

This is a planned elopement. Dinner at Bouchon. Hotel on the beach. The dress. The rings. Thoughtful this and that. And here I’d like to mention my guys at JFL Corp. in Atlanta’s Apparel Mart. I’ve bought suits from Jerry and his dad for over 15 years now, and I recommend you fellas do the same. Selection, prompt onsite tailoring, and the unrivaled eye of Jerry Junior are reason enough to go. There prices are unbeatable, too. By appointment only: (404) 523-2498 or 1 (800) 767-2498, My new suit is midnight blue and totally crushin’ it. My tie and shirt are a gorgeous, regal lavender, and Jerry picked that out too.

Anyway, I came to realize there are four types of elopement:

1. Planned Elopement – as detailed above

2. Secret Elopement – hiding out from family, friends, ex-spouses, maybe the IRS

3. Emergency Elopement – bump of a bun in the oven and her dad has a big shotgun

4. Spontaneous Elopement – VEGAS, baby, VEGAS

Appliance Smashing Party

I was famous in Cobb County for my graduation party.

Hanfest was – and by all known accounts still is – the largest graduation party in county history, so I understood the spotlight a good party could shine on a host and his host committee before I ever attended the nation’s oldest state chartered public university in Athens. The spotlight has benefits.

We, my three roommates and I, lived in an old rundown grey tarpaper house simply called Chase. In Athens, GA, party houses are affectionately entitled after the streets they are on, and Chase was nothing if not a party house. Chase eventually became synonymous with a row of several houses that shared a common gravel backyard, but back then it was primarily just us: Neilma, Weiss, Boggs and me.

Over a year before, Rogers had brought me by Chase after my first day of classes at UGA and introduced me to his roommates. It turned out I’d met one of them on a previous visit to the Classic City, the former Washington DC diplomat brat Chris Boggs – still to this day one of my closest friends.

For a year, I bounced around from Nantahala to Boulevard, to back home in Marietta with an overdrawn bank account, maxed out Discover card and a myriad of minor health issues stemming from a freshman year of college noteworthy mainly for an abundance of excesses.

Two months in Marietta was more than enough to recover and return in time to collect my financial aid and start back at work with the Tate Student Center Set-Up Crew. Consistently depressed and seeking, Rogers decided he’d had enough of the roommate wars at Chase and moved out, following the lead of his longtime Statesboro friend Kevin. Two rooms had recently opened up at Chase. Mookie had claimed one and I eagerly claimed the other. Boggs and Mookie and I had a mostly good time as roomies, until the collections agents were after the Mookster so hard for his rampant purchases that he figured it best to flee the scene and change addresses.

My good buddy from Marietta, Dave Weiss, was new in town and needed a place to stay, so he took over for Mook. And his friend Neilma desperately wanted in on our fun, so he moved into a large closet behind the yellow couch in the living room. Had to knock to be let out.

That part of town, you see, what is now called the Historic Boulevard District, was full of houses with revolving doors. Roommates moved in. Roommates moved out. Rent was cheap and every situation was temporary.

Resultant, the appliances were everywhere. You weren’t sure if the old toaster worked or where it came from, but you knew it must belong to one of your roommates, so you let it be. Then a funny thing occurred to me. I was watching a video by the Art of Noise called Close (to the Edit), an old favorite where they smash up pianos musically with power tools. Great stuff. We could gather and smash some crap for fun, make a theme party of it.

So we spread the word around the neighborhood and gathered stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. Washers, dryers, toasters, microwaves, a whole wall of broken television sets. And we cleaned our house and went out and recruited an assortment of friends and casual acquaintances and hot girls to join in or at least watch, and later perhaps sleep over.

And the Butthole Surfers was heavily cranking through my open bedroom window as the melee ensued. A freak in safety goggles pushed a broken lawnmower through the crowd of exhibitionists destroying the old appliances. An empty keg found its way into the TV screens. I was kicking my thrift store wingtips into this and that hunk of junk until there was nothing left but rubble. Rubble. We smashed it all into tiny bits of rubble. It was pure poetry.

Ode to Oakwood

We were never Cobb County run of the mill

Nor cul-de-sac shackled kings of the hill

We came to Oakwood to look and act weird

And be accepted, schooled, heard, cured

In effect, of that staid duality-reality

Education and thought in the mindlessly numbing suburbs

Near a great city in the making, rising to thrive like us

We weren’t necessarily the best and brightest

More most likely to be voted absurdest

In fact, you detested the sight of many of us

The mess and muss from the back of the bus

But we came together and got our learn on

Life lessons mixed with fun in the sun

Earth is zesty, an unpeeled onion

I’m glad I was born American-clever

A proudly freaky Unicorn, forever

Keep Oakwood High School alive

The only alternative to the hive