September 11, 2005

New Mexico Is Eye Candy

Hallo... I decided to take a break from the fast paced life of Silicon Valley, by taking a vacation somewhere slow paced and revitalizing. Enter – New Mexico! This is a state I knew little about prior to my visiting the Gilroy Garlic Festival. There I met an artist who specializes in painting natural scenes in Italy, France, Spain, and New Mexico. I pointed to paintings which caught my eye and excitedly asked him, “Where is this? Where is that? And this one?” He replied, “Santa Fe, Taos, and also Santa Fe, New Mexico.” From that point on, I just knew I had to visit these places.

I flew from San Jose to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and drove north about 60 miles to Santa Fe. It was night time and I couldn’t see much on either side of the highway besides towering mountains in the distance. I wished I had taken an earlier flight so I could have at least caught the sunset on its way down. Having missed the light, I decided to reserve time for Albuquerque on my way back to the airport.

Santa Fe, high up there at about 7,000 feet is dotted with historic landmarks and host to a number of art and cultural events. One that attracts the most visitors is the Indian Market. Held each year around mid-August, this event includes 1,200 artists from about 100 Native American tribes, visited by over 100K people. I just had to be part of this show. Parking downtown would definitely be a headache, so I asked the hotel manager if I should take a taxi or bus. He directed me to a mall near by from where special buses were being operated to shuttle art lovers to and from the Indian Market. All I had to do was walk a bit and then enjoy a short ride through Santa Fe right into her downtown. Smooth mode of travel.

We were dropped close to the Plaza; the place where things happen in downtown Santa Fe. The last time I saw so many Native Americans at one gathering was when I volunteered at a Pow Wow in Minnesota about 15 years ago. Getting lost among the natives and beautiful art was delightful for my senses. Booth to booth I wandered, talking with artists about their work, tribe, and occasionally telling them a bit about myself. “I am from California by way of Minnesota by way of South Asia by way of Iran and a lover of Native Americans.” Oh yes, that is a mouthful to digest and usually brings a laugh followed by more questions!

Different events ran across the center stage at various times. If I had been elected judge of the Clothing Contest, I don’t think I would have been able to render a decision, because each costume was more colorful and detailed than the next. Then, stepped up a Mohawk artist who recited his poetry. It was realistic, humorous, and wrapped around a catchy rhythm. I enjoyed talking with him afterwards about his poetry and art work, and also his tribe located in the New York state area.

Some wild birds have been saved from extinction, but there are others who need our help. Making a mini donation, I got my picture taken with a live Bald Eagle. Note: this is New Mexico, but the backdrop for the photograph is Colorado. Rocky mountain high, no worries and close enough. At least the bird is alive and real. The stare emitted from her eyes and the sound echoed from the flapping of her wings is beyond powerful. It made me a bit nervous having this huge creature sit so close to my face and near my shoulder. Awesome all the same.

Some other fun experiences include: walking through the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) museum, chatting with the ‘stop scams department’ ladies and also the ‘authentic native art’ ladies, eating an oily Navajo burger, hearing a native rock band with a female lead singer/guitarist strumming away “who do you love…?”, and then watching an amazing artist dressed in bright yellow perform the hoop dance… juggling a bunch of hoops over and around his body to the rhythm like clockwork. I learned a lot about the Pueblo Peoples of the Rio Grande Valley and made it my mission to visit some pueblos.

On a nice sunny day, I drove about 70 miles north of Santa Fe to the city of Taos. What varied terrain along the way! The eyes take in anything from a 3D view all the way to a many dimension view, but it is so powerful at a certain point you can’t make out how many dimensions your eyes and mind have just absorbed. The reds, browns, and yellows reflect back a multi-palette of hues literally bouncing off the walls of your cornea. No picture, painting, nor postcard can capture the view and do it justice. You just have to see for yourself.

During my first visit to Taos, I had the honor to chat with a Taos Pueblo elder at the pueblo. He told me some things about his WWII experiences. Five of his many years were spent serving in the Navy around the Far East. He stopped short of India. I joked with him about the ‘real’ India region where Christopher Columbus was supposed to land and how Native Americans have been incorrectly labeled Indians and Natives. I added, that now with the many Indian-Indians in America we have Indian Americans and American Indians. We laughed, but this can become a serious issue if discussed in detail. I saved it for another time. Interestingly, over my travels, I found many tribe members who prefer to be called, Native Americans versus Indian. Better yet, they like to be referred to by their tribe – Navajo, Zuni Pueblo, Hopi, Apache, and such. Sounds good to me.

The drive up and west from Santa Fe to Los Alamos is also past gorgeous terrain and lands you right in the heart of the city where the A-bomb was created during WWII. Walking through both, the Historical Museum and the Bradbury Museum was an awakening experience. From Native American art and history represented throughout New Mexico, in this city you are transported to science and technology – old and new. Native Americans farmed here for centuries, then came a boys boarding school for wealthy families, and then the Los Alamos National Lab took over and has since expanded. The entire LANL area is restricted, but we are allowed to drive around it to get to the beautiful forest areas. Atomic creation and natural creation under one roof – very ironic.

Close to Los Alamos sits the Bandelier National Monument, a park over 32,000 acres in size, and its main attraction is, Frijoles Canyon. Centuries ago, the Anasazi Pueblo people lived here in natural caves and also built homes near by. The water, plants, and animals of the area sustained them. I chatted with some park rangers and went for a walk along trails. Climbing up wooden ladders and stepping into some actual caves was a fun experience. The zillion bats and their mess wasn’t fun though. They live in the higher caves and I could smell them from afar. ‘Anasazi’ means ‘ancient ones’ in Navajo, and as I stared at the caves from inside and outside, I pictured them standing there as they did thousands of years ago, before America was America.

I drove through all kinds of areas in and around Santa Fe, from the rich to the poor. I see it as a city of financial contrasts – extreme poverty to tremendous wealth. Before I embarked on my journey, I flipped through a book about the exquisitely decorated houses of Santa Fe, but I could not find them. Then it occurred to me, to stop by the Opera House. After all, for the most part which social class listens to opera? Probably not the Native Americans on the reservations. So, there you have it… around the proximity of the Opera House close to the Tesuque Pueblo, I found homes decorated on the outside and inside with art galore. Colors bright as the sun and sky, painted onto brown pueblo-style adobe walls and windows, just like in the picture book and also eye candy, but in drastic contrast to Native American residential areas I visited.

If you venture a little south out of Santa Fe to the non-touristy areas, you land in places like Cerrillos and Madrid. Tucked away and yet close to urban areas, here is where I met and chatted with Harley-Davidson biker-types. I lost count of their tattoos and almost bought a bandana to blend into the club. Besides bikes, there are horses and horse ranches in the area. You can horseback ride across the beautiful landscape where you are an amateur or a professional.

Dropping by Santa Clara Pueblo on a week day, I came across residents going about their daily business. The post office is a major meeting hub and filled with boxes, so I gathered that people mainly have PO box addresses in this area. I also visited the tribal offices from the outside, as they were not open yet. Each pueblo has a Governor’s Office. Everybody waves and nods to greet you as you drive or walk by, even if they have no clue who you are. This happy behavior resonated across every single pueblo I visited and made me feel I was in a truly welcoming community. There is no fakeness about it, just pure genuine warmth.

Espanola sits north of Santa Fe and on route to Taos, bang on both sides of the freeway and the Rio Grande river. A sign read, “This way to the visitor’s center” so, I followed it and found this huge building with just two people in it. One was cutting the grass outside and the other cleaning the kitchen. They told me, the place is used as a rental for parties and functions. I got some tips about the region and a guidebook, but it was strongly suggested that I drive another 45 minutes north to Taos if I wanted to see something substantial. So, off I went to Taos for the second time briefly stopping to check out San Juan Pueblo from a distance.

There are dozens of shops around the main Taos Plaza filled with Native American goodies. Up till now, a lot of art work had caught my eye, but I had not bought anything. I wanted to buy pieces 100% authentic Native American and preferably sold by the artist him/herself. Then I found a Navajo run store with a decorated Native American medicine horse figurine and my eyes lit up. The lady said, it was her display piece and refused to sell it. However, she called three other stores to find the same horse. The final one had it, so I rushed over there and bought it.

Being ecstatic about my purchase didn’t last long. As the lady placed the box into a plastic bag, I noticed a tiny sticker on bottom which said, “Handcrafted in China” and I was horrified. I asked if it is made in China and was told, that it probably wasn’t and that only the box is made in China. What? The box is made in China? I am not falling for that! So, I made the lady take the figurine out of the box, flip it over, and there again was a “Handcrafted in China” label. I wanted to return it, but there was a big sign with “No returns No refunds” in front of my face. I am still fuming. For the rest of my travels I made it a point to tell lots of people, specially Native American people, about this story. I will not buy Native American art made in China and neither should you – period!

Hear this amazing fact – there is only one authentic Taos Pueblo owned store in the entire Taos Plaza shopping area. It is small and I found it by chance. Before I could ask if anything in there was made in China, the lady told me that they are a native owned tax free store. Yes, thank you! I spent ages chatting in there about authentic art, Taos Pueblo traditions and ceremonies, and got detailed information about each artist represented there. They have only 100% authentic products – wooden dream catchers made by a young Taos Pueblo boy, leather and horse-hair talking sticks made by a Navajo artist, cedar and stone pipes made by a Taos Pueblo artist, and much more. The experience was definitely eye and ear candy for me.

While roaming around beyond the Plaza, I visited the Kit Carson museum. Carson was a trapper, Indian agent, guide, and soldier who lived here. I also chatted with different Euro American people who settled in the area between 20-30 years ago. Most own the expensive galleries and enjoy the quiet rural life. I overheard an elderly lady complain about her having to type a lot and that it was hurting her fingers and eyes. I jumped in to suggest, that she get a text scanner or voice activated software. She seemed a bit stunned and then called me, a Computer Whiz. Far from it… just a Silicon Valley gadget and technology enthusiast. We all had a good laugh and she went off to act on my suggestion.

North of Taos one can drive on a route called, the Enchanted Circle. The entire area is a huge ski area. No snow at this time, but I imagined people zigzagging down snow white slopes and getting a thrill. I stopped in a small town called, Questa, but couldn’t find much to do there besides admire the surrounding natural environment and the many horses and cattle standing around.

Downtown Santa Fe is simple and very charming. The Plaza is a central point around which, like at Taos, there are stores and art galleries. A building called, The Palace of the Governors, lends its front porch to specially selected licensed artists who display their goods every single day. Not interested in expensive art galleries which primarily cater to wealthy Euro American retirees, I bee-lined for the artists directly.

It was great fun chatting with numerous artists about their work, daily lives, tribe, and much more. All were glad to explain in detail how and why they put together their pieces. They insist you hold it, touch it, see it in the sunlight, and ask more questions. So, I did and once again, I was delighted to see 100% authentic products handled directly by the artists – sand paintings, colorful bead dream catchers, storyteller figurines, various pottery, turquoise and silver jewelry, and artwork galore.

Being a sales/business development person, it was interesting for me to watch some of the artists haggle. They are too nice and mellow. I quietly watched one lady give in repeatedly to customers. At one point, she dropped her price from $250 straight to $150 and the buyer still would not buy. He probably thought it strange. I felt impelled to rescue her, so during a quiet moment I jumped in to suggest a different sales strategy and gave her some sales pointers. She laughed and earnestly thanked me. I hope she made some money by the end of the day.

On my way to Albuquerque, I took a slight detour and visited the Santo Domingo Pueblo. No ceremonies were underway, just another average day, so I got to be a non-tourist… something I strive to be. I bought a delicious home-made burrito from a resident, chatted with some pueblo people, wandered around the residential and plaza area, and then went on my way south to the Sandia Mountains.

The Sandia Pueblo people own a huge casino which sat in my path, but since I don’t fancy gambling I bypassed it. Further east, you can ride the Sandia Tramway – the world’s longest aerial tramway, up to Sandia Peak at an altitude of over 10K feet. What a spectacular view of the Cibola National Forest, Albuquerque, and miles past it! Sadly, I didn’t see any bears or bobcats, just plenty of squirrels and birds. I was told we get an 11K square mile panoramic view, but my eyes saw natural beauty and wildlife in views beyond 3D and multi-D.

In Albuquerque, I met a young man from the Zuni Pueblo. He had a small push cart on which he sold key chains, figurines, magnets, and such items – all made in China or Taiwan. Oh yes, I told him my “Handcrafted in China” story and we had a good laugh followed by a serious discussion. He was proud that the Zuni Pueblo members number over 11,000 and comprise the largest pueblo in New Mexico. Besides that, they are different from the other pueblos, in language and cut away from the Rio Grande river. We chatted about their history and current conditions, and I learned interesting first-hand information. I promised to visit his pueblo next time and I will.

In conclusion, there is a lot more to share regarding my trip and I could go on for pages, but I decided to jot down key experiences. Please note, that there is nothing New about New Mexico and definitely nothing Mexican about it either. I haven’t dug into the history to find out how they named this state, but I hereby rename this magnificent natural beauty-filled state – Eye Candy. Let me know your thoughts and ideas.

happy travels,