Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Re-Entry All Over Again

The American Friends of the Camino just accepted a piece I did on "Re-Entry" for its January newsletter. I wrote the piece months ago and barely remember what it's about.

The news prompted an even more urgent question: What is re-entry like this time, after our immersion in Mexico City?

The airports in both San Francisco and Mexico City are very much alike: sleek, steel, and impenetrable. The lines of SFO's new International Terminal, pictured above, look like an architect's drawing of galley ships, inverted over the passengers, counters, and shops. A week ago I stepped from the terminal onto BART. Within the hour, I left the platform for the upscale elegance of Rockridge's Market Hall, where the shops were sparkling and everyone was buying buying buying. It was a seamless transition from the world inside the airport to the world beyond. I relaxed immediately.

In Mexico City, there's more dissonance between the world inside the terminal and the world outside. Outside, a fortress mentality holds sway, with stucco walls on one side of a sidewalk and frantic traffic on the other. The stucco is pocked and faded; concertina wire curls around the tops of walls -- or broken shards of glass pressed into fresh concrete. Iron grills shield windows and doors from possible entry. Don't even think about re-entry.

We passed through miles and miles of this Riot Renaissance architecture, interrupted only by the occasional WalMart or OfficeMax. I remember thinking that these corporate imports from El Norte were the true home invaders. When we got to our residence, we entered a gated compound which required keys, codes, and phone numbers for access. All my defenses were on high alert. I started noticing everything: my life might depend on it.

Immersion is like that: all antennae are out, because your disorienation is so acute and your surroundings are so different -- and sometimes dangerous. In contrast, with pilgrimage, the monotony of walking for hours on end invites a different kind of attention. The outer landscape doesn't change much, because you're not moving that fast. Out of sheer boredom, you attend to an inner landscape. It's as if the antennae retract, focusing instead on the soul.

Yet, despite the difference, both pilgrimage and immersion pare things down to the essentials. On the Camino, we literally shed stuff, partly because we'd brought too much and partly because we discovered only by walking what we really needed. I returned to a house that seemed cluttered, a life that seemed unnecessarily complicated. I've been simplifying.

On immersion, we lived lower on the food chain that we'd been used to in the States. Juana, our dear cook, was a genius at figuring out exactly how much to prepare for us. Any leftovers appeared in puddings and soups. We always took public transportation, not wishing to add any more diesel fumes to the already polluted atmosphere.

Most impressive: we enjoyed the lavish hospitality of people who lived with a lot less than we did. We visited homes in the settlement community of La Estacion in Cuernavaca. For us, plastic chairs had been borrowed, cleaned, and arranged in a living room with a corrugated roof and wooden doors for walls. For us, dirt floors had been swept clean. We visited a campesino movement headquarters in downtown Mexico City. For us, there was free trade coffee, purified water, and all the sugar we could possibly want. Even at the compound in Mexico City, we ran into an unseasonably cold spell, chilling the unheated concrete block structures. For us, there were blankets -- and we were allowed to wear them everywhere to keep warm, at meals, listening to presentations, watching documentaries. Such rich generosity from people who had so much less: it marked all of us deeply.

I simplify, hoping that such generosity will fill the emptiness.

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