Wednesday, November 16, 2005


By Carl Grupp

[Editor's Note: Carl Grupp, the prize-winning artist from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD, and Fred Klawiter, then a religious professor at the same school, set off in January of 1979, along with a vanload of students, for a month-long working-learning experience in Cuernevaca, Mexico. What follows is Carl Grupp's recollection of that trip.]

Across the Border

I saw a couple of vehicles detained where they were going through inspecting everything, clothes and stuff scattered all over the place. In our van we had two top carriers that you had to sit on to close, holding all our suitcases full of clothes and necessities for our month-long sojourn. And so I was afraid we could be detained here all day, or longer, but we were blessed with a young very pretty girl in our group who could speak Spanish. I could speak none and wasn't even too confident of my English. Thanks to her flirting, the border guard thought we were okay, peeled off a sticker, put it on the left inside corner of our windshield, and threw down the peeled off portion which quickly took its place along the chain link fence with the rest of the litter.

It was official: we were turistas, and off we drove to Monterrey. I was immediately struck by the poverty of the people on this side of the fence. Down the thin road we went with Fred driving and me with the map as navigator. The road was like what I remember of the highways in America in the 1950's, two-lane basic asphalt except that the shoulders were lined with litter: more broken glass, aluminum cans, and that wonderful 20th century edifice, used pampers. This view was occasionally dotted with dead dogs, I wondered if they became so starved they had committed suicide.

As we drove along the land became more arid and desolate. Joshua trees sprung up like gigantic tarantula legs sticking out of the ground. Occasionally we would see the semblance of a lean-to made of a few sticks and, less occasionally, a person who lived at about the same economic level as a coyote holding up a cage made of sticks tied together, containing a lizard or a baby jaguar, and some with hawks or falcons on their shoulders. The guidebook said that under no circumstances should we stop for one of these individuals. We never stopped, and the guidebook never said why we shouldnt, so I still wonder.

In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a friend said it didn't matter where you ran out of gas, as the hose would always reach. Here the Pemex gas stations were few and far between in this seemingly desolate land. But we eventually came to one. While a young kid pumped gas, the students quickly evacuated the van to stretch, and to use the rest rooms. To rate this rest room for hygiene on a scale of one to ten, this one would have received a minus twenty-four. It was enclosed, so it offered a modicum of privacy, which was both a blessing and a curse.

The kid who pumped the gas gestured that I hadn't paid him enough, although I swore I had. Fred who had also been an unbeaten Golden Gloves Boxer grabbed the kid's hand that held the money, and opened it up to reveal that he had folded a large peso note into his palm. We got our fuel and change and continued our journey, with me the wiser.

In some places the road switched to three lanes, the middle lane for passing in either direction. If there was a speed limit, no one adhered to it and people were constantly playing high-speed musical chairs.

When I was a child there was an insurance company that put up big diamond-shaped signs with a large X and the word "think," marking the exact spot where a person had been killed in a traffic accident. Well, in Mexico with its huge catholic population, everywhere a person had been killed in traffic accident family members had built a shrine, some of which had little altars that contained burning candles. Some of these altars looked as though they marked the place where a busload of people had been wiped out, as the altars were overflowing with burning votive candles. I wondered who lit them in these desolate places.

I was driving now and was penned in by two large semi-trailer trucks belching black soot, and the truck in front would occasionally signal a left turn, but would never turn. I learned that this was his signal that it was safe to pass. I think he was a practical joker, however, as I would also be met by a large semi loaded with petrol and pelligrosa signs all over it barreling towards me in the center lane. So I drove along with a good case of claustraphobia, sweating the idea of us becoming another shrine with fourteen votive candles.

Besides the dead dogs and broken glass you would occasionally see a burned-out semi truck on the side of the highway, the tassels and pompoms still hanging in the cab's window.

I was slowly learning Spanish. The students picked it up really fast. My knowledge consisted of saying "Gracias Amigos" a lot, and a few swear words. I learned that Mirada meant shit, and so enjoyed shouting at the students, "OK who stepped in the Mirada?" After driving past a lot of large smokestacks spouting flames -- I soon discovered they were oil refineries -- we came to a long two lane boulevard with leafless trees and railroad yards that announced our entrance to Monterrey, and my first night in Mexico.

Our hotel was being fumigated so they sent us to another place, where up on top of the van we went to unload our suitcases for the night and to get checked into our rooms. It was a hard, tense drive, but Fred and I were hungry and eager to explore. I remember the stands with fruits and vegetables how colorful they looked. We hadn't gone very far when we came upon a man who was frying meat and tortillas on the top of couple of oil drums. In Bermuda the metal would be stretched to make musical notes; here it was pounded into a concave frying pan. Fred and I looked at each other and the smell of the sizzling meat and said, "Let's go for it." I had heard horror stories of Montezuma's revenge, warnings not to drink the water, and tales of people who had screwed up their intestinal flora for months afterward. But Fred and I were both blessed with stomachs and appetites that agreed with Mexican cooking. We each gobbled down six tacos, washed down with a huge cheap Pepsi, all the while giving the chef our best compliments in English.

I loved walking around in the zocalo of whatever town we were in and buying the local food of the street vendors. I bought something from a little boy once that looked like a deep-fried cactus, he broke the crust with his fingernail and poured on some hot sauce from a goopy, encrusted bottle. The food was terrific and I never suffered any consequences.

The next morning we took off for San Luis Potosi, where we were able to park our van in a wall-enclosed parking lot and we were all adapting and beginning to feel at home in our new country. As we traveled southward we were like snakes shedding our skins. Winter clothes were all packed away on top of the van, the T-shirts were on, the windows were open wide, and like bears coming to after a long sleep, we were all smiling, joking and in great spirits.

In Cuernavaca

On the fourth day we drove through Mexico City into our destination of Cuernavaca and the monastery. The monastery was situated on a hill out in the country at least ten miles west of the city. The Benedictine monks are noted for their hospitality and our living quarters were their original ones. I had my own little sparse room with my own toilet sink and shower. A single bed, desk, closet and one chair. A straw crucifix finished my decor. The monks liked to be hosts, but also avoided people, so they had built their new quarters up higher on the hill.

My Students and I spent a relaxing month painting in the Borda Gardens of Cuernavaca and the areas around the monastery. Here we painted in the land of the Aztec's, Cortez, the Emperor Maxmillian and his wife Carlotta. It seemed to rain every night, and every day it was around seventy-five degrees to eighty -- perfect. Not all the dogs were killed on the highways, as their sisters and brothers barked all night long. I relished the strange new smells and tastes of the markets, the warmth of the Mexican people, and their warm healthy-looking brown skin. Every time I saw myself reflected in a mirror or a store window, I would think I was Ill because of my Nordic, Germanic heritage, bleached by the Dakota winters.

See "Grupp's New Groove" in this issue of Seasonal Reader Work never shown before this!

One day as I painted a fountain filled with large goldfish, a large purple-breasted turkey gobbled a short ways away and a great flutist on vacation serenaded us both with his beautiful music. The temperature was perfect, nothing in me ached, and my brushstrokes went well. It was one of the most pleasant, peaceful times of my forty years. The monks were great hosts and great cooks. In the mornings they would kill and pluck the chickens that would be our supper that night. If by chance we didn't get full; there was always a basket of warm tortillas that we would lavishly spread with cacahuate [peanut butter] and the monks' homemade strawberry jam. You would always hear someone asking pass the cacahuate.

I was born and raised in the north central area of the United States, the youngest area of the United States in relation to European settlement. The people here were nomadic, so there is very little visual history, unlike the artistic Heritage in Europe or in Mexico. Where I come from Art was looked upon as a frill rather than an important aspect of life. In Europe and now in Mexico If I said I was an artist, I was addressed as "Maestro" and was held in high esteem.

We would spend the mornings and afternoons painting, and the evenings were free time. I would sit under my top coat to paint since I am fair-skinned and can't take much sun. Another blond, fair-skinned student burnt the backs of his hands painting and would wrap them with toilet paper to protect himself.

I was sitting under a shrub with my overcoat draped over my back to protect me from the sun, painting a large yellow Canna lily when I heard a gruff guttural voice: "Not Bad!" I looked up to see a thin gentleman dressed in a white shirt, tie, and tan pants. Under a Panama straw hat was the source of this voice. The hard chiseled face of a man who knew he was always right.

"Hello, my name is Dr.Schneider. Maestro, why don't you come down and visit me, I'm an artist too," he growled. The next day was Saturday and I said that I would come and visit him after breakfast. He lived right next to the monastery and I had done a painting of what turned out to be the back of his house a couple of days earlier. The next morning after a terrific breakfast of pancakes, I walked past the orchard out the gate and down the hill to Dr. Schneider's house. I walked down the sandy road past a small house of mud and tin that housed a family of five. The entire house was only about twelve-by-twenty feet. I saw many of these structures and always marveled at how that many people could live in such tight quarters; but the children always seemed clean and happy.

A large pot of beans cooked over an open fire and the cactus and stunted shrubs held the brightly colored day's laundry scattered all over them. No need for clothespins, I thought, with the spines on those cacti. These women must clothes wash every day to keep their families clean. I soon came to the large wrought-iron gate that announced Dr Schneider's home. I walked through and up a path and it was like the moment when the movie The Wizard of Oz turns to color. The contrast of the wealth was incredible. The flowers were beautiful and the entire place was lovingly manicured compared to the weeds and cactus on the other side of the gate. Large sprinklers were irrigating the fields that surrounded the house and people were working taking care of the banana plants. The house was brick and low and long with a red tile roof and it sat behind a large turquoise swimming pool. There was a covered veranda where flowers of all shapes and colors were blooming, Mozart drifted out from a large tape deck, large white doves swooped all around, and small dogs played their doggie games.

Dr. Schneider and his wife were sitting on the veranda. He was dressed the same but was sitting at a small TV table covered with a cascading small mountain of notebooks and scraps of paper, and another TV table which held a large clear glass ashtray filled with another mountain of ashes and butts. Directly across from him sat Mrs. Schneider, who despite the warm morning had a shawl draped over her bony legs. Her hair was very fine and thinning, so she was wearing a cheap grayish brown wig which was twisted almost sideways. It perched on her head like some small animal that had leaped up and clung there in fear for its life. A menthol cigarette dangled from the side of her thin cramped mouth. Both she and her husband were drinking martinis, complete with olives, out of fine-stemmed crystal glasses. In her other fragile hand she clutched one of those giant Hershey bars.

Dr. Schneider snapped, "Glad you could make it. Good Morning Maestro, would you like a martini? My girl makes the best martinis."

I replied, "Perhaps later." I was not accustomed to drinking martinis at nine o'clock in the morning. He explained that he was writing his memoirs, and that he had left Germany and had been a veterinarian in Canada, and he used to vacation at the monastery and that he had become friends with the head monk, who had sold him the land. The head monk had been from Oregon and had been killed in an automobile accident the year before. (I wondered if we had seen his marker along our trip down.) He said the other monks disliked him and so now they lived in tolerance of one another.

The walls of the veranda were covered with Dr. Schneider's paintings. They looked as though they were painted by a deranged Soutine. "I am painting the seven churches of Tepotzlan," Dr. Schneider said. "It is a little town near here. They have seven churches on seven hills. I think it's an important task."

The paint was globbed on in slashing brush strokes. "Very expressionistic," I said. The canvases were badly stretched so were warped and twisted out from the wall at strange angles. Seven exploding churches.

"Are you sure you wouldn't have a martini? My girl makes a great martini."

I relented and said I would have a beer. We sat down together and Mrs. Schneider said "I'm not supposed to eat chocolate, but I'm eighty years old, I can eat anything I damn well please. Would you have some chocolate?" She coughed as she thrashed away with all her eighty-year-old energy, attacking the candy bar's wrapper.

The beer and conversation went down easy, and I soon gave in and let Dr. Schneider's maid mix me a martini. I sat sharing a large chocolate bar, drinking a martini, smoking a cigarette, and discussing the finer things of life, as I watched their servants hoe around the banana plants. I got half crocked and excused myself and staggered out into their pasture to paint a watercolor of their house from a different view. It was one of the loosest watercolors I have ever done. It looked like nothing I had done before. It looked as if it had been painted by a deranged Soutine.

During our stay at the monastery I was reminded of a colleague who had taken a group to Russia and had a student who fell in love with a Russian man and wouldn't come back to the states. After a lot of phone calls back to the college and her parents, he got her as far as Paris, but she refused to budge from there and he had to leave her. Well, we had a number of girls in our group who were enamored of some young Mexican doctors who would come and pick them up every night on their motorcycles. "God help me," I thought. "Don't let any of them fall in love or become pregnant while I am responsible for their welfare."

Racing Home

Our month in this Eden went by too quickly, and I dreaded the drive back home. I longed to see my wife and children, but my hindside said, "I don't think I can take sitting that long in that van, no matter how nice it is." We were packed in like sardines in our winter clothes on the way down, and we had all loaded up with treasures like blankets, sweaters, dresses, and other bulky Items that would make our trip back more crowded.

We spent three days in Mexico City visiting its museums, parks, opera house, the fantastic Museum of Anthropology, and the National Palace where I was bowled over by the Diego Rivera Murals. Four out of every five cars was some kind of a Volkswagen: I wished I had a dealership there. I was amazed that the VWs weren't all banged up by the amount of traffic.

On every telephone pole you saw a poster of either the Pope who was coming on a rare visit or the actor John Travolta or Olivia Newton John. The big movie was Grease which in Mexican translated into Vaselino. We spent a day at the Aztec ruins of Teoteuacan, fighting off young boys selling obsidian flutes that they swore were played by Montezuma himself, and onyx chess sets.

Then the mad dash home. The trip back was going to be different, up the east coast in the Sierra Madres Occidental. When we left our posh hotel in downtown Mexico city at around six in the morning, a heavy fog of soot from the diesel trucks hung above us about seventy feet off the ground. The van was bursting with blankets and onyx chess sets. The students lay more than sat on their purchases that filled every square inch of the van. We drove past a high-walled building that was alone in the middle of a field, which was the home to a leper colony. As we wound our way up and into the mountains, the land became more tropical. Orange trees, lemons, bananas -- a lush green land in contrast to what I had so far seen of Mexico.

What I didn't realize was that Fred is a closet Le Mans race driver. This became very clear to me as we tore around these mountain roads. We must have looked very much like a panel from a Donald Duck comic book where the car goes around the bend on two wheels while the other two hang out over the cliff. My right foot hurt from pushing down on the floorboards and my testicles were crowding my lungs. Fred persisted in driving despite my offers to drive. I was in the front on the passenger side and would look out and down and down at rivers that from our height looked like threads. On top of this the roads were bad -- no guard rails, and in some places due to a rockslide or a wash-out our road turned into an iffy, hazardous one-lane.

Fred would not relinquish the wheel, so there was nothing for me to do except look out and down and mutter prayers under my breath that God would guide Fred's hands on the wheel. So I just held on for dear life and took photographs out the front side window. Occasionally we would see people pulling or riding on large flat-bed carts, much like the carts that we had made as young boys out of discarded wagons, bicycle parts, and orange crates. These carts would be loaded down with bushel baskets overflowing with fresh-picked oranges, with one person in front steering with a rope attached to each side of the front axle. Down the hill they would come like a bat out of Hades, with their board against a wheel for brakes.

We wound our way through seven different temperature zones until we saw women walking along the side of the road with buckets of oranges balanced on their heads and the houses made of sticks with thatched roofs of banana fronds much like what I had envisioned as the second little pig's home. I felt as though I was traveling through a National Geographic magazine and would not at all be surprised to see bare-breasted native women appear.

We stopped at a wide place in the road to look down at a lush green bountiful valley while two girls of our group disappeared into the bush to relieve their bursting bladders, only to be flushed out by a small group of men carrying curved sharp machetes. Thank God they meant no harm. The girl's sphincters probably closed up until they got back to South Dakota.

Thomas 'n' Charlie

The last rays of the day's sun were disappearing when we pulled into the small town of Tamazunchale. Fred parked in front of a large concrete slab about armpit height, which acted as the outdoor patio of our destination, The Palacio Hotel. It felt good to stretch our legs. While Fred checked us in, I spied a small shop and went in. It was filled with birds and stuffed animals from the area. Large stuffed herons, Egrets, reptiles and other beautiful birds. A complete bullfrog orchestra, large real green frogs stuffed and standing and playing tiny saxophones, frozen into the position of an eternal Charlie Parker. Frogs playing guitars, bass fiddles, etc. This was my kind of store, a kind of five-and-dime that would have made Alfred Hitchcock envious. I was very excited and purchased a stuffed Iguana for about five American dollars and a tiny hummingbird hanging on a thread.

I hung the hummingbird from the Iguana's curled up tail and put it in the van on top of the inside motor housing.

I went into the Palacio just as Fred had gotten the keys to our rooms. The Palacio was as close to a palace as a decadent Tennessee Williams might imagine it through the lens of Elia Kazan. Fred's and my room was like a scene out of Casablanca, a sparse metal double bed with a khaki blanket that under no circumstances could cover your shoulders and feet at the same time -- under a slowly twirling ceiling fan. Here we would eventually sleep like a scene out of a Laurel and Hardy movie. Fred was exhausted and told me then that he had driven so fast because a person did not want to be on that road at night. He was too tired to eat and just wanted to sleep.

The students meanwhile had congregated in one of their rooms to play a rousing game of cards. I, my appetite whetted from the strange store full of stuffed animals, decided to explore the town. It was getting dark and the little shop selling the stuffed birdsand lizards was closed, but I could look in at the dirt floor which was still lit by a dim bulb hanging from a wire in the ceiling.

Directly across the street from the Palacio was a wide space in the road for a small bus depot where I was soon to find out large diesel buses stopped to refuel all night long. So I later slept to the song of their gears grinding, motors revving, and their deep throat belches of black fumes. There was a small sign in Spanish where the macho bus drivers smoked and drank their coffee that translated to "Better Dead than Late." Before each driver returned to his position behind the steering wheel of his bus, he would cross himself and mutter under his breath. Now I realized more fully why Fred had driven so fast to get to Tamazunchale before dark.

The main street as I remember was only about six blocks long, and consisted of warehouses loaded with oranges. Now I knew where those carts came from or went to. I felt no fear in this strange place, because the Mexican people had been so gracious and good to me. The people had gone home and the town was quiet and dark except for the small bus depot and the Palacio. I wandered back down the deserted dark street towards the dim light of The Palacio, disappointed in not finding any more places as interesting as the shop full of stuffed things. The Palacio had a small eating area inside and outside on the concrete raised patio. I stood looking at the glass case of candy bars, gum and lamps made out of cactus.

The Choctaw

It was here that I met him. He had dropped in for some gum or candy. He said "Hello, where are you from?"

I was surprised to hear someone speaking English. He had seen the Sanborn Insurance Card in my pocket that informed me how to translate dollars into pesos. I was five feet eleven and around two hundred pounds; he was a little smaller and about fifteen years older. A square kind face with a head of short cropped graying hair. He stood like a sailor steadying himself to the rotation of the earth. I ordered coffee negro and he ordered warm milk and we sat down together at one of the Formica-topped tables. Two fellow North Americans, a bond already joining us.

"What's happening back in the good ol U.S.of A.?" he drawled.

I had not read a paper or watched a television set, or listened to a radio for a month. No wonder I felt so peaceful. In America we get ulcers and anxiety attacks from some horrible situation on the other side of the globe. I think about my mother for whom as a child the big news was who was going to win the basketball game? Mayville or Portland? Now she worried about the crack in the ozone layer and how the rain forest in South America was being destroyed.

I told him about the weather on the way down, and that the lettuce crop in the Rio Grande valley had been wiped out. And that Muhammad Ali had regained his title from Spinks.

"Where are you from?" I said.

"I grew up on a Choctaw Indian reservation in Oklahoma." he said. "A good place for a kid to grow up, but a good place to get away from. The Korean war was going on and my friends and I wanted to be soldiers, so we tried to enlist in the army, but we were not big enough, and too young, so they wouldn't let us go and fight. So we ate a load of bananas to get our weight up and lied about our age and joined the navy. We never saw combat," he said, "but when they got out of the service strange occurrences began to happen."

One friend, he said, arrived home on the train and his father picked him up at the station and on the way home the pickup they were driving was hit by the very same train and they were both killed instantly. Another friend, went home and a week later they had a big party for his return and he got drunk and went up into the hills and committed hari-kari. His third friend arrived back home on the reservation safely and asked his parents about his horse. They replied that it was out in the pasture and had not been ridden since he had joined the navy. He replied, "That's not good. Horse should be rode." So he went out and lassoed his friend and put a saddle on him. But when he got on, he was wearing his navy slippers and his foot slid through the stirrup and the horse bolted and dragged and kicked him to death.

"So when I mustered out of the Navy in Seattle," he said, "I bought a car and drove to the Oklahoma border, but couldn't cross the border. I pulled over and broke out into a cold sweat. I could not cross that border." His pale blue eyes stared into mine, "There is more to life than we can understand."

"So I had saved all my money while I was in the service and went to Waco, Texas and bought a little gas station, restaurant and eventually married a Spanish woman who was from Tamasunchale. Every time she got pregnant she went home to her mother and we had nine kids so she and I spent a lot of time in Tamasunchale."

I told him I was an artist and a teacher. He said he had wanted to be an artist too, but that it took a lot of courage to be an artist, as people reacted to you funny, as if to show your sensitivity was some kind of moral weakness. He didn't get as good as quickly as he wanted, so he gave up the dream, but said his son could draw pretty well and asked if I would take a look at some of his drawings. Before I could answer, he was up and on the wall phone arguing with his sixteen year old boy about bringing his drawings down to the Palacio. I thanked God under my breath that the son won the argument.

"Maybe another time," he said as he sat down and ordered another warm milk and I got a refill on my coffee. Somehow the topic got around to Muhammad Ali as it usually did with me. The great boxer was one of my heroes. My new friend and I shared our admiration for this American Icon. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." My Waco friend said that Ali trained on a diet of rattlesnake meat and honeybee pollen, and that he was on the same diet. He said he was standing at a urinal a couple of years ago and his urine was the color of coca-cola. So he went to see a doctor at the Veterans' Hospital and they diagnosed him with bladder cancer. After a lot of tests the doctor said if he went into treatment in the vets' hospital that he might have about five years, but if he did nothing he might have a year.

"I decided a year in Tamazunchale beat five years in a veterans' hospital so I sold the gas station and everything and moved to Tamazunchale." He was under treatment here by the town witch doctor and that's why he was on the diet of rattlesnake and honeybee pollen. He said he didn't want to get his hopes up too high, but since he had gone on this regimen his back aches had stopped and his urine had cleared up. He said he lived in a beautiful house just outside of town with a yard full of orange trees and flowers and every morning hummingbirds would fly in and out his bedroom window. "Why don't you and your students stop for a visit in the morning," he said.

I said I was sorry but that I expected we would be in a rush to go back home. "Well, If you can," he said disappointedly. He wiped the foam from his lips and continued, "Every town has a witch doctor and there is more than we can understand to heaven and earth. Whenever anything is wrong in the village the people go to the witch doctor for consul. For example take the man who owns this hotel," he gestured towards the man dozing near the cash register, "he is a man of habit. He has this pocket watch that he is very proud of, and every day at a certain time he likes to take a shower and always hands his watch to his wife to care for. Well one day he had done this and had gone off to take his shower when a whole bus load of tourists pulled into town and they all came to the Palacio for filet mignons.

The wife was not prepared for this and so took off her apron and put it on the table on the patio while she ran to the butcher to get the meat. She arrived back with the meat, and had everything well in hand when her husband returned from his shower and asked for his watch back. The watch which she always put in her apron pocket for safekeeping was gone. So that night when they could get away they walked up the road to visit the witch doctor. Before they could say anything the witch doctor said I know what you have come for. You have come for your watch...but don't worry -- all you have to do is wait. A little boy has taken it and he will return it to you. So the husband and wife went back home and sure enough a couple days later into their hotel came a woman dragging a little boy by the ear. The little boy handed the watch back and apologized for taking it. There is more than we can understand in heaven and earth. A long time ago" he said "I said to God ...When you need me, call me, and when I need you, I'll call you, otherwise we will just leave each other alone."

"I'm not afraid to die," he said, "but my wife is one of those Spanish women who mourn in black, and I can't stand that. I told her when I die that she should have me cremated and to take my ashes up in a plane and to spill them over these beautiful hills, and that she should have a great big party and go out and find a better man than I am."

"Come back in a year and see if I'm still here," he said to me. We got up and shook hands and I walked him outside where he got on a small motorcycle and put-putted up the hill into the darkness.

Copyright © 2002 by Carl Grupp

For many more Grupp works, go to Hall Three of the Gallery at Ex Machina Books and Art.


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