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The Power Of Shadow

oaxacawindow

I often see tourists on 4th avenue, a quirky stretch maintaining a tenuous foothold in the 60’s, 70’s, and maybe 80’s. They walk around with cameras around their necks or cell phones extended, making memories of things I have lived with since 1983. Cell phones didn’t exist back then, and I don’t think I ever really photographed the city.  In 2001, when I moved back here from my ten year stint in Hell, otherwise known as Phoenix, I purged, throwing away boxes and boxes of photos, mostly of the desert. I kept the ones with people in them and sent them to my sister for safekeeping.

My external hard drives overflow with more than 100,000 memories of places I have visited, and still more of the desert and mountains around Arizona. Not so many of Tucson, its buildings, or people other than friends.

During the four or five years I freelanced for McGraw-Hill Education, I traveled to a dozen countries, and took a lot of pictures of buildings, people, and nature.  My choice of subject was somewhat guided by what I thought MH would license, but mostly I just photographed what caught my eye.

When you venture out into a new place, with a different culture, a different history, different shadows from the ones cast by your past, everything is exotic, the smells, the shapes of faces, the colors and designs of everything human-made, even the landscape.

The more time you spend in a place, the more familiarity casts its own shadow over the illusion of uniqueness.  Your eyes no longer fix on the same highlights, excitement drains from the mere act of exploration. Mundanity overwhelms your environment. This is not to say that you no longer see beauty, strangeness, or shadows, just that they are cast upon a familiar canvas, thus taking on a familiarity of their own.

As a photographer, I find that when I initially visit a place, I spend a lot of shutter clicks recording the new and exotic.  Once I have been there longer, or spent multiple visits there, my photography becomes less documentary and more artistic. I find myself taking photos like the one above, from my last days in Oaxaca, just because it made a good image, not because it was cool and new.

The shadow of the bars and vines lends a distorted perspective to the commonplace window, rendering it more beautiful than it might have been in daylight. So too the shadows of our pasts combine with the shadows cast by what we do not know about a new place bring exoticism and beauty to what is ordinary to those who live there.

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Navigation

map

This map was displayed in a case in the historical museum at Plaza Sto. Domingo in Cd. Oaxaca. The first thing you notice is how crude and inaccurate the depiction of the Americas is when compared with that of Europe, Africa, and Asia, where sailors had been transporting cartographers for centuries. I don’t know the date of this map, but I deduce that explorers had reached up the west coast of North America, but not to Alaska, and their landings on the northeast coast were so spotty as to make them think that Greenland was connected to what is now Canada.  The northern borders were all drawn as if they were bounded by navigable waters. A bit of wishful thinking which may now be manifested thanks to the melting of the icecaps.

Yesterday I listened to a fascinating podcast featuring Donald Hoffman, who has a intriguing theory on the nature of reality. Long story short and very simplified, our perceptions are all false, they are just the interface by which we navigate the operating system which is consciousness. It is a truly mindbending 54 minutes.  He is very good at making his theory intelligible to ordinary brains.

For 35 years I painted abstract acrylic canvases which created illusions using the brain’s ability and tendency to fill in the blanks where information is lacking. I was also a wake-n-bake weed smoker for many years.  One thing I noticed about THC is that for many people, it obscures the ability to read other people, to pick up on cues as to their thoughts, to read between the lines of their behavior.  This creates gaps, which our brain fills in.  Another effect of THC is mild paranoia, which affects the way those gaps are filled, to the detriment of interpersonal relationships. This became particularly clear to me in the 90’s, when I quit smoking and my girlfriend at the time didn’t. We didn’t last long.

Our ability to recognize patterns and to extrapolate the connections between divergent points of knowledge has been critical to our survival as a species and to the development and expansion of our understanding of the universe around us. Now Hoffman comes along and says none of it is real.  The trippy thing is that he has come to this conclusion through the lens of the same false patchwork interface that, according to him, we all use to make sense of life. He proves all of this using mathematics.  I have not seen any of the equations in question, and I doubt I would understand them, but the theory rings true.

The map above illustrates how easy it is to get things very very wrong if you don’t have enough data, and also the confidence with which humans extrapolate and draw the map of their world in the face of this lack of knowledge.

I am about to embark on a major transition.  In 8 months, I will start collecting Social Security.  During the subsequent year, I will prepare and finally move to Oaxaca to “retire.” I am taking this step based on a very small set of data.  I am sure I have drawn the map of this adventure to include a clear Northwest Passage which doesn’t exist, and that the coastlines I have drawn are woefully inaccurate.  Still, I will travel to this new world and learn its true boundaries, it’s beauties and perils.  I will live, as humans always have, refining my interface with consciousness by navigating the unknown.

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Luxury Bath Products On The Vine

loofa

This was right up the street from my hotel.  It is indicative of the more relaxed regulatory climate in Mexico.  This vine would never be allowed to grow across the street on a power line in the US.

It was about a week before I saw a guy hanging out at the entrance to the parking lot where the vine originated.  I asked him what it was.  He said it was something for washing yourself.  I assumed he meant you could make soap from it. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that it was a loofah plant.  The dried fruit of this plant, properly cleaned, becomes an exfoliating sponge sold in salons around the world for ridiculous prices.

I never saw anyone harvesting from the vine, although I’m sure they must.  I don’t know what happens to the loofahs if they do. I didn’t see any for sale in any stores I went into. I’m sure they didn’t get the $10-$15 prices I found on Amazon just now. Maybe they never harvest from it at all.

So many of the things we value in the US come from the tropics, from medicines to fruits, to fine hardwoods, to coffee, to loofahs. Often these plants are so commonplace in their native climes as to be ignored.  Then we demand them, and forests are cut down, fields are burned, food crops are replaced by coffee and sugar cane.  It is not so much our demand and appreciation of these things, but rather the huge scale of that demand.  When 20 million Americans want illegal drugs, you get powerful cartels throughout the regions that produce those drugs.  When the whole world is addicted to coffee, it covers the mountainsides and uses all the farm labor.  When McDonalds and Burger King are international beef consumers, the Amazon rainforest is replaced by pasture land.

There are too many humans.

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Manifestaciones

Zocalo

On my last day in Oaxaca, I went to the goverment/police building in the zocalo, hoping to see the murals inside.

By way of background, I need to tell you that Oaxaca has a history of indigenous unrest, and brutal suppression thereof. In 2006, a teacher’s strike devolved into violent conflict and the eventual takeover of the capital city by the Popular Assembly Of The People Of Oaxaca. While this was temporary, the group maintains a permanent presence n the zocalo, and has covered the front of the police building with both booths selling handicrafts to tourists, and political banners.  On a fairly regular basis, busloads come in from the surrounding towns for rallies and protests.

The first time I went to see the murals, it was Saturday and a rally was in full swing.  Thew APPO had strung a large banner right across the entrance to the police station.  Sheepishly peeking out around the end of it, two policemen told me to come back during the week. I did so my last day, and although the banner was down, the police refused to let me in “for security reasons.”

It’s an interesting situation, as most of the police are also indigenous. I don’t know enough to have a strong opinion yet, but I tend to lean towards the indigenous people in any such situation (although not necessarily their leaders, who have been notoriously dictatorial.) The people I spoke to in Oaxaca who have money are terrified of the new president, who is a socialist.  They believe that he will turn Mexico into Cuba overnight. I suspect that the people he voted in believe he will turn Mexico into a worker’s paradise overnight.  Both sides believing their own propaganda.  Not dissimilar to the United States.

One of my first goals upon moving to Oaxaca is to learn at least one of the indigenous languages, probably Zapotec, as they are the largest group. Maybe that will facilitate understanding on my part of the situation beyond what I can read on wikipedia or a banner on the police station.