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Archive for the category “Photo Essays”

Boquillas Del Carmen–The Road to Mexico

Boquillas del Carmen is either at the end of the road or the first place you come to headed towards Central Mexico.  I suppose it all depends on perspective.  It lies across the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo from Big Bend National Park.  It is next to the magic river that divides and conquers so many things between our countries and cultures.  On one side lies a huge National Park, suitable for recreation by gringos who like hiking, the high desert, beautiful mountains, and deep canyons.  On the other side, literally and figuratively a stone’s throw, without any kind of fence or the need of one, lies Boquilla del Carmen, Coahuila.  What kind of place is it exactly?  It is hard to tell, hard to explain, hard to imagine and hard to live with after you have been there.

When Stacy and I began planning our trip to Big Bend, she read that they might have the crossing open after being closed for over 11 years.  Frankly we were both anxious to see what the trip across the river would be like.  What I know about Boquillas comes from our visit, the stories of our guide Esteban, and a few things I have read on the web, particularly about the re-opening of the crossing.

There are a few things you need to know about trying to cross into Boquillas.  You must have a passport.  You cannot cross over at all without one.  You also have to show your passport on the Mexican side and again when you return to the US.  You need to bring cash with you, a good bit actually.  The boat ride over is $5 a person, the ride to the village is $5 a person and meals, if you decide to eat meals run at least $7 a person for a simple, but good meal.  If you choose to buy any of the handcrafted items like walking sticks, bracelets, wire scorpions or embroidered bags, you will need more cash. The tourist paper allowing you to enter the country, is free on the Mexican side.

Boquillas del Carmen used to be a mining town.  Evidently during the 40’s and 50’s the mines that operated in the area used a low water crossing to send the ore they were mining to be processed in the states.  There were according to our guide about 300 familes in the village.  Once Big Bend became a thriving national park, they closed the roads to the mining trucks.  Because Boquillas is the end of the road, the mining stopped.  It was too far to travel to Piedras Negras or Ojinaga.  When the mining died, tourism evidently became the chief source of income.  There was even a hotel for a long time.  It is said Robert Earl Keene wrote the song Gringo Honeymoon about Boquillas.  There are still hot springs in the area.  It was also a place a lot of college students would use to cross over and drink at the Park Bar.  Personally, it seems like a long way from everywhere just to go and drink.

Then in 2001-2002 everything changed.  The US closed all non-essential border crossings.  Boquillas del Carmen died.  It became largely a ghost town, with only about thirty families holding on.  There were other places to get into Mexico and Boquillas stopped being one.  Right across the river, the Big Bend Park, Terlingua, Marathon, Alpine, and Marfa became the tourist spots.  Esteban moved his family to Muzquiz about 125 km away so his children could attend school.  He was very proud of the fact that his daughter finished University and was teaching school.  He says he returned to Boquillas to be a guide to earn some extra money and see if village really could be revived.

About the trip:  You park your car in a very secure lot in front of the US Park Service Building.  It is the only way over.  There are no Immigration or Customs officials in the building.  You walk through the building then down to the river.  From across the way, you can see men and boys waiting for you.  The boat is rowed across the river, and picks you up.  As you cross, Victor who appears to be the “jefe” of the group, sings Mexican songs like Cielito Lindo.  I joined in.  It takes about one minute to cross.  Suddenly you are in another place.

To actually get to the village there are several options:  You can walk the ¾ of a mile on the road, you can take a truck ride or even rent a horse.  There had to be at least ten horses at the crossing, 3 or 4 pickup truck taxis, and boys and men wanting you to choose them.  Ride up in a truck, it is better than the horses.  You do not actually need a guide, but we wanted one.  We were assigned Esteban.  He was a gentleman who spoke excellent English although I preferred to speak Spanish to him.  You ride to the only air conditioned spot in the whole village, the Mexican Immigration office.  You have to get a Tourist Visa from them.  The men who were there the day we crossed were wonderful conversationalists and very efficient.  They will remind you to get back across the river by 6 PM.

Esteban showed us the village, made up mostly of small adobe or cinder block houses that was once his home, now his livelihood again, and still a part of his heart.  We walked down the main street, stopped by a cooperative craft market, then walked over to his nephew’s house.  Hanging out on the line were dried fish his nephew had caught in the river.  His nephew’s wife had made some very nice embroidered pieces.  He showed us the hot springs close to their house that serves as the village bathing spot.

The town itself is a mixture of old ruined buildings, some newer homes, one bar, and a couple of restaurants.  We ate at one and enjoyed the meal; tamales, enchiladas potosinas and good cold Mexican Coca Cola.  There is no electricity in the town although there are lines and poles.  Quite a few homes have solar panels for electricity.  The men at the Immigration office had to turn off their generators at 9 PM.  They said it made for long nights.

There is this deep contrast that I felt walking the streets.  I have been in many small Mexican villages all over the country.  I have seen the poverty that can be so endemic.  It was almost like the town itself was trying so very hard to exist.  The ruins and the solar panels just added to the contrast.

For the Mexican curious there are of course los curios.  Everyone tried to sell something.  Little children would come out as they saw the gringos with bracelets or the metal scorpions.  Even if you did want to buy something or everything, it was hard to resist a four-year-old asking you to buy something, anything.  The one “nice tienda” in the town had all the same stock clothes, trinkets, pottery, huaraches, and “junk” that any other store in a border town would have.  It was all neatly arranged and on display.  That part of Mexico doesn’t really attract me much.

What we saw too were people, all sorts of people trying to sell you something of their pueblo, their tierra, to take back to the US.  It is like Boquillas and the people that live there now, want to sell you Mexico.  They want you to buy something, take it back to the United States across the river, something so you can “remember” Mexico or at least Boquillas.

Boquillas is either the end of the road, a door to Mexico or just there.  There is a melancholy about our visit that still haunts me.  I think of Esteban often, hoping he has some good days as a guide.  I think of those people trying to hold on in the high desert, and semi-deserted town.  The Park Bar will not rock on until 3 or 4 in the morning.  I am sure or at least was told, that the town basically stops at dark.  If it is the end of the road, like so many other places in Mexico, the Federal and state governments will promise a lot and deliver not so much.  If it is the door to Mexico, it is basically impossible for a gringo to go anywhere else.

It takes two minutes to cross the river but it will take years and a lot of hope for Boquillas to become an extension of Big Bend tourism.  Selling Mexico to gringos is a full time business in every tourist town from Cozumel to Baja California, or up to Boquillas.  We want with some primal desire to visit the places, get what we can in enjoyment and leave the people there with more wire scorpions and bracelets than they will ever sell.  The guy hawking the condo on the beach at Playa del Carmen is no different really.  It isn’t that selling Mexico is so hard, it is just hard for us to buy it sometimes.

We visited the small Catholic chapel.  La Señora del Carmen is there with Jesus at her side.  She did not want to sell us anything.  The rosary laid out on the table was very beautiful.  She is watching over the village that bears her name.  What I hope is that as she watches the gringos come and go, and the people who come there to pray for their families, health, and a little bit of luck she looks down the road and across the river and brings a bit of blessing to everyone who comes.

Boquillas A Caballo

Boquillas Chapel Jesus

Dried Fish From the Rio Bravo

El Rosario

Boquillas House

Boquillas Little Boy

Boquillas ruin

Boquillas Window

Stacy And Esteban

Stacy at Lunch in Boquillas

 

The Icarus Session in Austin February 6, 2013

I love Seth Godin and his blog.  He has suggested that people all over the world participate in what he is calling Icarus Sessions, where people are allowed to share about their art.  The idea is to encourage each other to get art “out there.”  Stacy and I attended the Austin session last night, the 6th of February.  We thoroughly enjoyed the session.

Here is what I read and some photos I shared.

My name is Michael and I capture beauty with my camera.  Beautiful things are all around us and we often fail to even notice them.  I say I capture them, because they are fleeting, momentary and often gone forever.  But then most beauty is like that isn’t it?  Photography captures those moments in time and space.  Stopping, pausing, capturing light is a way to keep that beauty alive.

I believe in all cultures there is a longing and a desire to produce beautiful things, to make beauty not only last, but make it part of everyday life.  I also believe there is a universal longing for aesthetic completeness.  By that I mean there is an impulse within to find wholeness and meaning, by recreating beauty, then living within that creation.  It may be a sacred or profane place, an altar to a deity or stark rock formation, but the beauty is there, there whether or not anyone ever beholds it.

All artists seek to contribute to that completeness.  Whether it is with paintbrush, pen or pixels, describing, capturing, laying out that beauty is a task we share.  We do not create, but re-create the beauty.  We contribute to the completeness through forms: abstract, concrete, realistic, farcical, erotic, or philosophical; but form is only that: a form which is here today and gone tomorrow.  It is not the method of art that needs to be discussed, but the meaning of the beauty recreated and shared.

My name is Michael and I capture beauty: light and dark, colors, textures, forms and fantasies but all I do is try find that completeness and make beauty real.

Port Aransas SunriseSide by Side

Turner PopeCowboyAngel's WingsStacy

Raising Ebenezer II Tumbled Down

Here I raise mine Ebenezer;

hither by thy help I’m come;

and I hope, by thy good pleasure,

safely to arrive at home.

The Galveston Beach Cairns tell stories about people.  They are stories where we have to fill in the blanks sometimes, but the stories told in stacked stones are wonderful.  People went down to a rocky part of the beach and took time to stack rocks in just a certain way as a work of popular art.  While we usually make things from rock so that they last, sometimes things just tumble in.

Isn’t that the way life is though?  We think we build or are building something and suddenly it just crashes down.  At times I think these cairns fell over because of the elements, the wind and surf.  Sometimes I think just the very weight of the rocks balanced one on the other caused things to just fall.  Sometimes I am sure, people built beautiful creations only to see them fall like sand castles before their eyes.

If life gives us rocks, why not build a cairn?  Why not build something that says to everyone I am here and this is me, at least the me of this moment.  But like the wind, surf and gravity, our lives sometimes are just tumbled down or get tumbled down.  What we think is solid falls apart.  What we feel is a beautiful creation seems to just slide apart.  We just cannot make it work.  I don’t want to read to much into things, but at the same time, I don’t want to say too little.

I have learned some things out of life though.  What gets tumbled down can be rebuilt.  The things we want to be solid that fade, can be picked up, rebuilt, made new.  It is hard work doing that.  Some things that were in the first thing, won’t be in the last.  Some rocks just get set aside, but what happens finally is a new creation.

Cairns are ways of remembering and have been for years.  Cultures all over the world stack up rocks and stones and say: come here, see this, remember this person or that event.  I love Teotihuacan in Mexico, just outside of Mexico City.  It was a city at one time of over 100,000 people when the largest city in Europe perhaps had 10,000.  That is where you find the famous Pyramids of the Sun and Moon.  What did the last indigenous person think as he was walking away from that abandoned city?  Did he wonder if it would ever get rebuilt?  Did he wonder if the gods had truly abandoned him and his people?  Did he wonder if those stacks of stones would ever live again?

Like what happens in life, some of the Galveston cairns have fallen over.  I wonder if the beauty is in what was, in what is right now or what those same stones could be in the hands of someone else.  I found one place where stones were laid out, not stacked, just more like someone was doing a puzzle and had laid out all the pieces.  Did the person want to say: “Hey sometimes the beauty is in the getting ready?”  Did they want to say “Hey this is my life it just isn’t made yet?”  Or did they want to say “Hey, make of this what you will.”

Tumbled down things and lives are not just junk.  They can be the pieces of the puzzle in the next work of art.  You just have to be willing to build it up again.  Arriving safely at home sometimes does mean we need a bit of help to get there.

Raising Ebenezer

Here I raise mine Ebenezer;

hither by thy help I’m come;

and I hope, by thy good pleasure,

safely to arrive at home.

Beginning sometime in late 2011, people began going to a portion of the beach in Galveston, Texas and building things.  They began building cairns, stacks of stones.  It is wonderful public art and an expression of creativity.  I mean if God gives you rocks you make cairns right?

Cairns themselves have a long history.  Stacks of stones to commemorate special events,  special places, to mark the burial ground of someone important, or to mark the way on the path date back to early man.  Cairn is a Celtic word but the object itself cuts across cultures and time.  People have been building memories and marking extraordinary places for a long time.

“Here I raise mine Ebenezer,” comes from an evangelical hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”  The idea that the author expresses in the words comes from an Old Testament passage, I Samuel 7:12.  “Samuel took a single rock and set it upright between Mizpah and Shen. He named it “Ebenezer” (Rock of Help), saying, “This marks the place where God helped us.”  (From the translation, “The Message”)  Samuel built a cairn to remember God’s help.  When I was walking through the area looking at the cairns and photographing them, that song came to mind.

We all need places to remember, places to mark the way in our lives.  We even say I have reached “a milestone.”  People used to put down stacks of rocks to mark how far a mile was.  We remember the marks along the way and arrive safely home.  Besides that, God knows we all need a little help sometime.  Perhaps the simple act of stacking stones becomes a simple way of saying grace.

I have no idea about the motivation for the cairns that began appearing on the beach, but who cares really?  What matters is that people stop and take moments to stack stones and remember.  What are they remembering or forgetting?  Is their particular story under every rock?  I think it is.

What photography does is allow us to participate in their art. Then just for a moment we can write our own story about why those stones, that shape and form, become a memory and a help.  The blog posts in this series will remember what these creative people have built on a rocky stretch of beach.

I invite you to write your own story about one of the photos in the comment box below.

For more of my photographs see www.mcaleerphotoart.com.  You can purchase these and other pictures from my website.

Simple Perfection

Symmetry

Almost Monolithic

Balanced

She Left Her Pearls

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