Saturday, September 08, 2007

The New Mexico Story - Part 4

[continued from here]

Day 4

Our first stop this morning is the Aztec Ruins National Monument, just 8 miles away from where we stayed the night, so obviously we get lost. We finally stop at the Visitor's Center in Aztec to ask for directions, which are provided by the extremely chirpy young woman behind the counter. I then make the mistake of asking her if she knows what time the monument opens. She says she's not sure and pulls out a brochure which says "Summer Hours: 8 am - 6 pm, Winter Hours: 8 am - 5 pm". She's not sure if Winter Hours have started yet, but she can check. I try pointing out that in either case the site opens at 8 am, but this doesn't register. She spends five minutes messing about in her e-mail inbox trying to find the mail about when the Winter Hours go into effect. She then consults the Aztec Chamber of Commerce (aka the woman on the next desk) since she's the one who originally sent out the mail with the timing information (why they need to exchange e-mails if they sit right next to each other don't ask). Chamber of Commerce then proceeds to search through her sent mail for another five minutes. Neither of them considers running a Google Search on Aztec Ruins Monument Hours, which, of course, would have been the faster way of finding this out. Eventually one of them finds the mail and deduces that yes, indeed, the site will be open by now (it's 8.30) since in Winter it opens at 8.00 unlike in Summer when it opens at, oh, 8 as well. Sheesh!

Aztec Ruins itself turns out to be a bit of a damp squib. Oh, it's a nice enough site - it's just that after you've spent half a day wandering around in Chaco Canyon, Aztec Ruins feel a bit tame. Partly it's just that the site is smaller. Partly it's that the buildings here seem more reconstructed, more artificial. Still, there's a lot to see. There's a second three-wall structure (they're extremely rare, apparently). There's another path leading through a series of low rooms, this time with little exhibits on the side protected by glass. Most impressively though, there's a reconstructed Grand Kiva, a great cylinder of a room whose luminous, hushed atmosphere allows you to experience a sense of meditative serenity, so that you find yourself taking a break from the photographs and the guide books and just sitting there, on the side of the great room, breathing in the calm all around you.

Our original plan for the day was to spend the morning seeing the Aztec Ruins and then head back to Albuquerque to catch our flights. Except that because the Aztec Ruins site is pretty small, we're done with it by 9.30, so we figure we might as well try and catch something else before we fly out. Z is keen to see a ruined mission or two, so we decide to visit the San Esteban del Rey Mission in the Acoma Sky City. One fifteen minute stop [1] at the Farmington Starbucks later (I've been surviving on Gas Station Coffee for three days, I NEED this) we're headed South on the NM 371.

Another long drive, another stretch of empty country. Driving down the road, we see endless clusters of mushroom rocks, bringing back memories of having to draw diagrams of these things in school, and making this perhaps the first time that anything I learnt in Geography has proved to be relevant, not to mention the first time I've managed to think of my Class IX Geography Teacher without breaking into a cold sweat. The other interesting feature of this drive is the sheer number of churches along the way. We barely see any signs of human habitation - a dilapidated shack here, a stray ranch house there - yet every five miles or so there's a sign for a different church. It's almost as though every single person living in this area had their own personal denomination.

Eventually, our route connects us to the I-40, and from there to the road to Sky City. We know from the guide book that Sky City sits on top of a large mesa, so we spend the twelve mile drive off the I-40 staring intently at every ridge, mesa or general outcrop of rock, imagining that we can see buildings on top of it. We finally settle on one particularly impressive plateau that we decide simply must be the place. It turns out that this plateau - called the Enchanted Mesa - isn't the location for Sky City, but used to be the main site for the Acoma people (dating back to sometime in the 7th century AD) before a bolt of lightning shut off the only access route to the top - so we feel somewhat vindicated.

The real Sky City lies a few miles South of here, on another plateau. It is, we are told, the oldest continuing habitation in North America - the Acoma people have lived on this site since the 11th Century AD and continue to live there now. The settlement has no electricity and no indoor plumbing, and it's a pretty bleak spot to live in - scorching heat in the summer, freezing wind in the winter - and nothing but rock and sand around (there is exactly one tree on the mesa). In the old days, the mesa top was reached through a crude stone staircase that runs up the side of the plateau (you can still walk up it), though now a two lane road winds up to the settlement. Also, as it turns out, the site is not open to visitors - you are only allowed into the settlement if accompanied by a Native Acoma guide.

Z and I are fascinated. We weren't really expecting anything this special - we'd figured there would be a ruined mission of some sort, a few old houses, maybe a kiva or two. We'd scoot up, take a few pictures, walk about a bit, grab lunch somewhere and be done in an hour. Instead we find ourselves signed up for a one and a half hour guided tour through the settlement (luckily, we get there just as a tour is about to start). I'm not, in general, a big fan of guided tours, but our guide on this one (Fred?) turns out to be a real gem. It's lovely when a tour guide doesn't simplify things down to the comprehension level of a ten-year old, doesn't spend all his / her time trying to make small talk or cracking stupid canned jokes, and instead provides rich information and detailed context. We learn a great deal about the Acoma people in that one hour with our guide - their history, their traditions, their culture, their current mode of life, their agriculture, their religion, their architecture. Learn, for example, that after the Spanish missionaries tried to suppress their native religion, the Acoma people took to building square kivas and practicing their faith in secret. Learn that the ladders leading up to kivas are painted white and have pointed ends jabbing into the sky to bring down rain. Learn that the timber that went into the making of the mission church was carried from Mt. Taylor (40 miles away) and that the men carrying it were charged with never letting it touch the ground along the way. Learn about the Pueblo rebellion in which the Native Americans rebelled against the Spanish conquerors, and how 7 of the 21 clan systems of the Acoma were wiped out as a result of this action. Learn that the traditional three story structures of the Acoma never had doors on the ground floor, and that the role of top and bottom floors were interchanged with the seasons. The script of that tour alone would have made for a interesting hour-long lecture - that it was accompanied by a 1 mile walk through the settlement only made it more captivating.

But it isn't just about the info. There's also much to see and admire on top of the mesa. Most striking of all, perhaps, is the San Esteban del Rey Mission - a great adobe structure over 70 feet high, with a proud bell tower and a cemetery in front. It's an impressive church- not, obviously to be compared with the great cathedrals of Europe - but the perfect embodiment of a style of architecture familiar to the American desert: a plain, low building, unadorned to the point of bluntness, its walls as much as nine feet thick.

But the rest of the settlement is intriguing as well. There's the quaint mix of the primitive and the contemporary for one thing - modern plaster walls rub shoulders with structures made of straw and mud, shining new cars stand parked outside houses that look like they date back centuries, portable plastic toilets live next to dusty stone cisterns of muddy green, the cylinders of propane vie with the Hornos or clay ovens, that the people here still use. I am reminded of small villages in India, which is the only other place I have seen this balance of the new and traditional. Only here the contrast seems starker, bleaker - in part because you sense the pride that makes the people who live here cling to their old ways, and in part because the location itself seems so inhospitable.

Sky City is also, inevitably, something of a Crafts Bazaar - every few houses you'll find a table laid out in the sun with little pieces of pottery, handicraft or other mementos laid out for tourists, and watched over by the colorful people who make up this community. After a point this gets a little tedious, especially if, like me, you have no interest in these knick-knacks, but the beauty of the place is that you have only to turn to one side or the other before something else catches your eye. If the quaint buildings don't fascinate you, there's always the view from the mesa itself - a great scrub plain stretching in every direction, with a low ridge of cliffs in the distance and Mt. Taylor like a blotch of dull blue behind them. You can see Enchanted Mesa from here as well as well as number of smaller rock formations at the base of the Sky City Mesa, including one called Lonesome Rock, which is where the ancient Acoma used to corral their horses. Perhaps most glorious of all, though, was the sheer brilliance of the sky above us, its vibrant blue setting the dull brown and ochre of the settlement in striking relief.

Sky City is our last stop on the trip. From here, we drive to Albuquerque, return the rental car, and prepare to fly out of New Mexico. Z's flight leaves at 6 pm, mine at 11.30 - which means that I had a good 5+ hours to kill at Albuquerque airport - not the easiest thing to do. I mope about drinking coffee for a while, then sit in the airport brewhouse watching Justine Henin destroy Serena Williams. It turns out that the last but one flight leaving from Terminal B of the Albuquerque 'Sunport' is scheduled to depart at 7.40 - the four hour gap between that and my flight meaning that everything in the airport shuts down by about 9.00. The last time I saw a security lounge this empty was when I showed up at Raipur airport at 3 in the morning for a flight at 7.

Not that people helped. When my fellow passengers finally show up, they include:

a) One precociously annoying seven year old being 'encouraged' by his parents to engage with the Continental representative at the counter. In the course of some 5 minutes this kid i) asked her if the flight was on time and when she said it was told her (and everyone else) that she was lying because look, he'd just looked it up on the Internet and it was five minutes late, ii) wanted to know whether she could upgrade all 4 of them to Business (she couldn't) iii) wanted to know if she could put all 4 of them in the 'bulwark' seats at the front of coach (she couldn't) iv) wanted to know if she could give them all window seats (again, she couldn't) v) aisle seats? (nope) vi) wanted to know if there would be a movie (no, it's a red-eye) vii) why there wouldn't be a movie (see above) viii) what's a red eye (sigh) ix) whether they showed movies on this sector if it wasn't a red-eye (yes) x) whether there would be radio (no) xi) why would there not be this point the harried representative rushed into the plane, supposedly to check if we were ready to board but really (I'm sure) to avoid the little brat.

b) One desi uncle-ji, who, by the time we got onto the plane had informed practically everyone in the security area that i) that good-looking middle-aged Caucasian woman hiding behind a newspaper was his Wife (pronounced with a capital W) ii) that he ALWAYS traveled First Class, but had CHOSEN not to fly it this time because, you see, he was flying First Class to Manchester from Newark right after this (why this stopped him from flying First Class to Newark was not clear) iii) that he ALWAYS takes an aisle seat (presumably the only person in the whole wide world to have thought of this) and that iv) he had been clever enough to book a window seat for his Wife (see above) and an aisle seat for himself and was hoping no one would come between them [2].

c) One near-hysterical woman, who, having just discovered that she was sitting next to an emergency exit (don't these people every check their seat assignments before hand?) was now not only in total panic at the prospect, but felt that it was only fair that since she clearly couldn't sit there, she be allowed to choose any other seat on the flight that she might fancy.

d) One standard-issue smarmosaurus with a ridiculous combover, who saw no reason why all of the above should keep the poor representative from listening in rapt attention to his fascinating talk about flight schedules and connections to Albuquerque (just how dumb can people get? I mean, I'd be the first person to admit that I know absolutely nothing about chatting up women, but even I can see why a discussion of the various flight options out to the East Coast from Albuquerque might not be the most fascinating topic for someone who works for an airline out of the city).

Thank god for earplugs!


[1] Why is it that Starbucks in small towns are so woefully inefficient? It's bad enough that each customer seems to take about two decades to decide what he or she wants, but it's also that the staff seem to be under the delusion that what they do is a deeply creative exercise. It took the woman behind the counter at Farmington three minutes, three WHOLE MINUTES, to fill one cup of plain old coffee and hand it to the customer. I shudder to think what would have happened if someone had asked her for a Cappuccino. We would probably have been there till Christmas.

[2] As it turned out, the poor unfortunate assigned the seat between uncle-ji and his wife was this nice, polite desi boy who was traveling with his aged grandmother. The conversation went as follows:

Desi Boy: "Excuse me. I was wondering if you would mind switching to the aisle seat on the other side? I'm traveling with my grandmother and she needs my help, so we were hoping to sit together"

Uncle-ji: "But I'm traveling with my wife."

[Pause as Desi Boy tries to figure out how this is relevant]

Uncle-ji: "You see, what I did was, I took one aisle seat and one window seat so that no one would sit between us."

DB: "But I am sitting between you"

Uncle-ji: "Oh, you have the middle seat. What a shame. You should always choose the aisle. I always do."

DB: "Yes, but this other seat is also an aisle."

Uncle-ji: "But then how will I sit next to my wife"

DB: "But I'm sitting between you."

Uncle-ji: "Yes, yes, but we're still together no?"

DB [giving up]: "Anyway, it's okay - I just thought I'd ask"

Uncle-ji: [having tasted blood] "So you are from India, no?"

DB: Mumble

Uncle-ji: "What part of India?"

DB: Mumble

Uncle-ji: "Oh, I was born in Ahmedabad. Not that I'm Gujarati you understand. No, no, I'm from Punjab. But I was born in Ahmedabad. And then when I was three my family moved to Jallandhar. So you see, I am from the Punjab. Only I have not been living in India for very long now. No, no. I used to live in the UK, you know, Manchester. You know Manchester? Yes, well, I used to live there. Then I moved to the States five years ago. To be with my Wife, you see. And now I live in New Jersey. Which is like a little India only..."

DB [after about five minutes of this]: "Yes...Errr. Excuse me. I think the seat next to my grandmother is empty. I think I'll just go sit there. Yes, I know we're still boarding. But if someone comes I'll come back. Okay. Thank you. Bye" [flees]


ggop said...

I was hoping that five year old sat next to you :-)
The room in the Aztec Monument looks like a set from Star Trek.

Shantanu said...

Ha ha! You know, I always enjoy all the asides about the people around you! Here's hoping you continue to be pestered by even more brats, uncle-jis and aunti-jis during future travel so we get some more of such hilarious observations. :-)

rs said...

I can't believe that we wrote about unclejis from jalandhar at the same time. are they in vogue right now?