CUERNAVACA: Can I ever come back?

Robert Brady’s home left me on an artistic high. Truthfully, I didn’t think I was capable of reacting as I did. I’ve always appreciated art, but it’s never been something I get feverish about; I’ve never been all that serious about ART. But something changed that day. I don’t mean that I’ve suddenly gone off to gallery launches or I’m financing up-and-coming artists (um, hello, pandemic! and um, hello, have you seen the potential in my spray paint work?? I’m the up-and-comer!), but I that afternoon realized how decadent it feels to be surrounded by beautiful objets d’art that you’ve carefully curated. You could, if you worked at it, live in an art museum. I knew instinctively that I would really enjoy doing something similar back home. And after all, that former Iowan, Robert, managed to do it. His residence-turned-museum was a functional and tranquil home, and each room had something lovely to admire. Why not me? Dance break:

When I was back on the streets of Cuernavaca, the city felt more beautiful than ever. Maybe I was just more appreciative of beauty, but I think I started to see reality differently that day. Everything and absolutely anything can be beautiful. Old ruined shacks can be lovely and modern sculptures can be stunning and the way a road turns can be the height of creativity, it can be the very meaning of life itself, but all of a sudden, nothing was as lovely as the watercolors an old man was painting in front of me. 

I’ve always wanted to be good at watercolor painting. I think I could be, but the problem with me is that I simply don’t do it. Other activities call to me and I divert and focus my attention there. I mean right now I’m building a deck and wiring a solar pump. I never saw that coming. (I firmly believe that any human is mostly capable of doing most any realistic thing they decide to put time, energy, and effort into. I mean, I could be a dancer, but I just don’t dance. And I don’t know if I’m not meant to be a dancer. I could have missed my calling and the world is missing out on my art. Or maybe not! That’s why life is so much fun, you can’t really plan for what talent you might have or how you get to use it.) 

The artist introduced himself as Señor Enrique and we conversed in pleasant and simple Spanish. He was absolutely charming and showed me the various paintings he had for sale. His work focused on the architecture and vegetation of the city, so it showed all the things that I found most captivating about Cuernavaca. And I’m not special, that’s what everybody finds captivating about Cuernavaca. Señor Enrique knew his market. Anyway, it’s said that this is a city of eternal springtime, and that’s quite true, and the sentiment was perfectly captured in his watercolors. 

The painting above shows the church near Robert Brady’s home, and I found it sensational. It wasn’t the biggest painting nor the most technical, but it spoke to me immediately. It doesn’t capture the church with complete accuracy or from an angle that makes sense, but that’s what a photograph is for. The church and environs are dulled by runny watercolor paint, but the colors are flawlessly accurate. The flowering vines that creep along the crumbling stone wall is a triumph. Not the church or the city…the flowers are the most important element. If you squint, it’s just like being there. I bought it immediately and cherish it. Today it hangs in a place of pride in my home and whenever I see it, I think back on that wonderful day in that truly magical place. I know I’ve said it already, but I look back on this as one of the more formative days of my adulthood.

And to my delight, the wonders were just getting underway. As I mentioned in the last post, this little excursion to Cuernavaca was one of the most needed respites I’ve ever given myself. The city was, and now I’m going to say something dramatic and artistic so stick with me because even I find this kind of talk intolerable — but Cuernavaca somehow fed my aesthetic spirit and made me feel complete in a way buildings don’t usually manage. 

I still don’t fully understand where I found myself next, the place didn’t seem to respect any of the laws of physics. I don’t mean I was being abducted by aliens or something, but there was too much packed into a seemingly small space. I found it mesmerizing that in the middle of the city, there was an expansive and unexpected place that just seemed to billow out endlessly in all directions, like what they theorize the very edges of the Universe look like. At times it felt like a public park, or a museum, then a botanical garden, sometimes a dilapidated private residence, yet always an otherworldly oasis. 

It turned out to be a blend of all those things, but the otherworldly element came from the combination. You pass through a wall and then enter a building and then suddenly you’re out back and there are decrepit walking paths, rusted fountains, dried up pools, overgrown plants, areas that aren’t off limits but look like they could kill you if you were foolish. The trees are dense and because of a water shortage there aren’t many plants that aren’t hardy natives. And then a huge manmade rectangle of water shows up from nowhere. It wasn’t a pool. It was a lake. I’m aware that humans can make lakes, I drive over one when I go to my mother’s house, but I’ve never seen such an artistically sculpted human-made lake with stone, terraced landings on either side. It was absolutely immense and the cost must have been exquisite. 

And this all does makes sense because it turns out the Jardín Borda was built by an immensely wealthy man and it was later adopted as the summer home of Emperor Maximillian and Empress Carlotta because it was so sensational. I always find Maximillian and Carlotta wild. They were the only European royals that every lived and reigned in North America. They were from Austria and the third Napoleon sent them to lord over Mexico. This absolutely did not end well…think firing squad, but now is not the time for the story of the Second Mexican Empire. I haven’t fully studied it anyway. Regardless of your opinion on monarchs, you can’t deny they lived in some opulent locations. Have you been to Versailles, yet? The Castle of Chapultepec? Windsor Castle? Huge rooms, gilding everywhere, so many paintings, and delicious intrigue under it all. They must have had such fun. I’m far from wealthy and I’m having a hoot with my own home. Just think if I had a palace!

(A friend suggested calling my house The Palace, and I am very much into the idea. I’ve been calling it The Estate because I think you should name your home like they do in England. I’ve never understood why they do this or how it works. But I love how Agatha Christie books always have quips like, “Well, you have to go the Pale Horse and then take the left fork at The Laurels.” How is this supposed to make a bit of sense to anybody? Marvelously perplexing; I love when things become unnecessarily complex. And I’d much rather say my address is a name and not just an ugly string of numbers. You know what I mean? Is this just a me thing? Anyway, the point of this interlude is that I’m finally going to have stationary made for my house now that it’s been christened. Why don’t you get personalized letterhead?)

I wandered aimlessly, which is a passion of mine. The manmade lake was hypnotizing, and I thought to myself that I could easily stay in that city for the rest of my life. It was just wonderful to stroll along the water, to listen to the cadence of conversations, to be in the sun. I need ample sunshine in my life or I will lose my mind. A warning rang in my brain, though, and I remembered something else that Agatha Christie wrote about in her memoirs. She was an adventurous traveler and she and I share many of the same emotional attachment to places and buildings. She often said of the beautiful places she encountered that she could not or should not ever return because the spell would be broken. This might be quite true. I wondered if repeat visits to Cuernavaca would dull the splendor? How could it, though? I found Cuernavaca to be the most beautiful place I have ever been, and that statement is without contest. Agatha said that she thought Isfahan was her most beautiful place, and she returned at least twice more. She broke her rules, and so will I, I’m sure.

At the very end of this branch of the lake was what appeared to be a dilapidated pavilion that was walled by three of the four sides. From a distance, it looked stuffed to bursting with junk, things I couldn’t yet discern were piled up with no apparent rhyme or reason. Just heaps of materials and my curiosity called me over. Getting closer, I was ecstatic to see loads of grinning skulls!

Now don’t get worked up reader, they weren’t human skulls! They were decorations for Día de Muertos and made of papier-mâché. Dozens of gorgeous calaveras were rotting and falling apart in the ruined building. I couldn’t understand what they were doing there. Was it inappropriate or culturally insensitive to get rid of the art created to celebrate the beloved dead? Was it just a scrap heap in the middle of a beautiful garden? Was it an art installation? You can never tell with art sometimes. In Chicago, I once came across a rusted heap of scrap iron that I later learned was a beloved oeuvre by a celebrated sculptor. At the Des Moines Art Center, they have some vacuums stacked on top of each other by Koons, and I just can’t. I never got answers about the area I was exploring, but I did get some sensational pictures that I like to look back on and sigh dreamily to myself when I’m desperate to go somewhere. Anywhere.

(Reader, in the past year, my biggest and most exotic outing wasn’t a Beduin village or the Mediterranean coast, it was Indianola, Iowa. I’m not going to talk about how burdensome this is to me because I’m not a complete fool. We all went through the same bizarre year together and we needn’t swap war stories and try to out-suffer each other.)

It had already been a thoroughly stimulating day but I wasn’t going to miss anything. I changed my plans about going to see some distant Aztec ruins the next day because I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving Cuernavaca. This came as something of a relief because I never could figure out how to get there. It wasn’t impossible, but it would have taken a couple buses, a chronically unstaffed site, and a lot of Spanish that I might not know. I truly wanted to go see it, but I also just wanted to simmer in luxury. 

So I made my way back to the hotel, freshened up, and decided where to take myself for an early dinner. I scrolled and scrolled through reviews, but kept coming back to a place called…you know what, I’m not going to say. You’ll understand later. It was on the other side of the ravine, and I didn’t feel much like walking there and so I ordered an Uber and was on my way. I’m always stunned by the existence of Uber. It’s such a convenience and I get that there are some scummy parts of the business, but I can hop in a random stranger’s car almost anywhere in the world and be fairly confident that nothing is going to go awry. Just an absolutely brilliant concept. (And also, we’re all absolutely insane. You know one of those drivers is statistically a serial killer. It’s just a matter of time. I hope it’s not one of us. I hope it’s not anybody, but you know, the clock is ticking. You don’t fight statistics. Serial killers really freak me out. I had one driver in San Francisco who never said a single word, never turned her head, and wore leather driving gloves and I never thought A THING about it until lately, and well, now I think about it often. It haunts me.) 

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey across town, reveling in the colors, trying to understand the demographic shifts of the community. We left what was apparently the older part of town where I was located, and creeped through a part of town that was less affluent, then much less affluent, and then huge and marvelous constructions were popping up and I wondered what exactly I was getting myself into. 

I was ballsy in Cuernavaca and never had a clue. Being an idiot sometimes is the best defense you’ll ever have in life. If you’re truly clueless about something, nobody is going to blame you for it. Usually. You only get into trouble when you go looking for trouble. Anyway, let me just say, I learned a lot about this town after I left. I was probably eating dinner with cartel members. A cartel might manage the restaurant. A cartel could have monitored me when I left to make sure I was really moi and not a DEA spy. I know this all sounds ridiculously overdramatic, but it’s really not. I read far too many gruesome stories from the years past. I didn’t even have the vaguest inkling that I should think anything out of the ordinary. 

Dinner was, needless to say, extraordinary. It was one of the finest gastronomic experiences of my life. I was made to smell a cork, reader. There was a private park where the tables were arranged around water features…and good god, I can see how it plays out on a telenovela now. I relished every bite of my appetizer and salad and dessert and main and entree and soup and carajillo cocktail! It was, every single dish, a triumph of plating, perfection everywhere. The bread basket was extraordinary! I was in ecstasy. Had an absolutely wonderful time. Magical. Paid a big bill. And said to myself, “You should walk this off!”

And here’s where I could have truly gotten myself into a little silly business if I hadn’t been an absolute buffoon. I was walking all over the place, having an absolutely glorious time. Nobody and nothing bothered me, something which I’ve learned to be extraordinarily thankful for. (Cuernavaca is not what it once was, but at one point, this area was basically headquarters for some bad, bad, bad shit.) Blithely clueless, I determined to walk all the way back to the hotel, which I did do, and saw some rather magnificent things along the way. 

At first, just residential sections, but soon shops, and then suddenly and unexpectedly, an archaeological site! I wasn’t aware that there was a pyramid in the city! I squealed and took pictures of the lonely site and was just utterly captivated. I stood in a rapture outside the gates and didn’t notice how nobody drove around, nobody walked about, none of the shops were frequented. It was like a ghost town and I don’t know what to make of that, but I couldn’t think of it because of the stacked stones in front of me. Pyramids do that to me. Almost every time. The Great Pyramids of Giza, oddly enough, are the only ones that have ever left me feeling meh. Pyramids are hardly the most extraordinary structure made by our ancestors, but they are always somehow enigmatic. Time of my life.

I walked through what seemed to be a street of language academies, something that piqued my curiosity immensely as a wannabe linguist. Cuernavaca is apparently where you go to learn Spanish if you want to have an immersion experience. Lots of different options to pick from, I even bookmarked a couple websites for the future. I’ve learned more Spanish than I ever anticipated from my travels and from my telenovelas, but it would be good to get a more academic background in the language. Most of my vocabulary is slang and peppered with phrases I’ve picked up from soap operas. I’m usually understood in Mexico, but I’d like to do better about understanding them. 

It was a long walk back to the hotel, but I wasn’t completely done for the day. The pool was calling my name. And I answered as quickly as I could. It was a wonderful day. Sublime really.

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