Wednesday, October 15, 2014


San Miguel De Allende: Mirage in a Desert

"What makes the desert beautiful,' said the little prince, 'is that somewhere it hides a well...'"

- Antoine De Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

           I eventually learned to love Mexico City but I'd be lying if I didn't confess having suffered a near coronary upon stepping off the plane into the Districto Federal.  Maybe it was the fact for my first meal, I inadvertently ordered a soup that had a flaming shot of mescal poured into it.  Or maybe it was trying to sleep in a hostel that resembled what I imagine purgatory to be like.  Or the conversation I tried to have with some Mexican travelers from Monterrey who insisted on conversing with me in Spanish about Buddhism.  And though I had every intention of soaking it all in, I just wasn't ready for it quite so suddenly.

        So it made perfect sense when the conversation about Buddhism evolved into a conversation about a small town a four hour drive further into the desert called San Miguel de Allende.  In the guidebook I have borrowed there is no mention.  So what if this was a conversational suggestion made at 2am after a couple of tequilas?

        Barely half a dozen hours later I am curled up in a contorted fetal position on a bus, trying to catch up on the sleep I didn't get during the hostel snore-a-thon.  I am groggy when we drive past a couple of industrial towns in the middle of nowhere.  Other than that, the vista is a bit bleak... hundreds of miles of cacti, brush, chaparral-covered volcanic hills.  Dry, dusty and desolate, even in December someone could die of dehydration out here without a soul to notice.  Eventually the bus driver pulls over to the side of the highway without uttering a word other than the name of my destination, leaving only a cloud of dust for me to swallow.

        My God.  What have I done.

Dry desert on the way to San Miguel De Allende
         I'm picturing my parents having to fly down to claim my body in an unmarked shack serving as the local morgue.  After fifteen of the longest minutes of my life, a taxi appears, and with my backpack bouncing on my tailbone, I desperately chase him down on the other side of the highway.

        "El Centro por favor," not knowing what exactly the center town entails, gambling heavily on a church, a plaza, possibly an ice cream push-cart.

        A mere seconds pass when we enter cobblestone streets carving through piles of brightly-colored Spanish stucco buildings, illuminated bell towers, and a panoramic vista overlooking a hillside town dotted with lights.  In the center, as suspected, is a Spanish cathedral, gracefully illuminated.  Snacking on fresh churros in one hand, hot chocolate in the other, I wander around a stunning town square, and my biggest concern is to not spill the hot chocolate as I cross the cobblestone streets.  For a while I see no Westerners and hear no English.  My plaza companions are well-dressed Mexicans.

          In a cafe I eventually encounter something of a curiosity:  an elderly gringo, possibly in his eighties, skin light as day.  To his companion he mumbles something in American English, but then just as easily orders his drink in perfect Spanish.

         Later that evening, I am seated a bit awkwardly on the corner of my bed, in attempt to invoke the wisdom of wikipedia on my smartphone in my charming but budget hotel with concrete and stucco walls.  (Turns out that colonial-style walls are not so wi fi-friendly.)

        The town was originally named after a man of the cloth named San Miguel who, with the help of dogs, discovered a spring and founded the town under Spanish colonial rule.  Ironically, the town also bears the name of Ignacio Allende, the Spanish nobleman turned insurgent who fought for Mexican independence from Spanish colonial rule.  The town was his birthplace and the first to declare independence from Spain.

         The town of San Miguel de Allende won its political independence from Spain, but cultural independence it did not.  To this day its architecture is pure Spanish colonial and was such when it was discovered by Stirling Dickinson, a wealthy American Princeton graduate, trained at the Art Institute of Chicago, fresh off a stint in World War II.  At the time of his arrival the city had been long suffering from an economic decline with the collapse of the mining industry and general post-war blues.  So enamored was he with the town that he first became the director of the newly created art school, the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes, and effectively lured a number of his fellow veterans armed with education stipends from the GI bill and eager to continue their international experience.  He then started his own institute after accusations of Communist sympathies led to his dismissal.  Quiet and unassuming, Dickinson lived modestly despite his inherited wealth, and by his own admission was a mediocre artist at best.  In his days as an art teacher, he instituted a curriculum based on Mexican culture and tradition and was fluent in Spanish.

        Eventually the economy had been fully transformed from agricultural to one based on tourism.  Today, visitors from all over Mexico are driven to its abundance of galleries and theaters, all featuring local artists and musicians that since flourished beginning with the influx of expat investment in the 1940's.  Inconvenient enough from the capital city and devoid of beaches or resorts, the foreigners it attracts tend to prefer aesthetics and culture.  English is seldom heard on the streets and the art schools place heavy emphasis on Mexican-rooted culture.  Diego and Frida are the icons of choice and no one mentions MTV.

        Despite my best intentions in my five days here, I've failed to make it inside a single gallery or museum.  Instead I've managed to while my time away wandering up and down the cobblestone streets, through the artisan outdoor markets, the produce markets, the public squares.  I have sat inside the towns' cathedrals staring at life-sized sculptures of the Passion, I have stalked my favorite fresh churro vendors, and I end every single night listening to live music be it Latin jazz or Mexican folk.

           With the restoration of colonial structures funded by American expat investment, San Miguel de Allende has been likened to Disneyland.  I am the first to be embarrassed by loud American tourists.  It is a city that once existed as a Spanish colonial city before the Americans got here, and the "Disneyland" was eventually resurrected by a group who chose to serve in a war against Fascism and racism, and returned home with a new appreciation for culture and a desire to create art, and learned to speak the language.  Not the most terrible set of Americans I've run into;  certainly less distasteful than the twenty-something set in Mexico City I overheard from the other side of a cafe clarifying to a Mexican that they hailed from "Brooklyn, not New York."

        And of course, the story of Dickinson in itself is intriguing.  A mediocre artist himself, he seemed to be more blessed with vision than artistic talent;  not only did he move to a foreign country, facilitating the creation of a fine arts school, but he also effectively convinced his brethren to leave their homeland to do the same.  To have lived part of his life in war to support his political beliefs, then to turn his energies to an equally daunting task of creating and facilitating art and beauty--it is an ideal easy to admire.

        As an American traveler, I belong to one of the most elite demographics on the globe.  As in the case of Sterling Dickinson, the effect of American money has an impact of exclusion every place it touches, despite even the best efforts to avoid this.  But if only we can at least funnel the effect of our wealth to in some way facilitate the flourishing of art and music.  I aspire to one day be as much of a contribution to the art and music of a traditional culture as at least one American has done before me.  Sterling's impact was undeniably a form of colonialism, as is my sheer existence as an American in Latin America.  But it is one I can stomach--alongside those freshly made churros.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Punch Drunk

"There was an old ring proverb that "Youth will be served," but the annals of the ring offer a great number of exceptions."

- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Croxley Master"

       At the not-so-tender age of 36, I decided to enter the ring and box a 21 year old, former college athlete, in her 1st year of law school.  It was a long-time coming, three years in fact, that I first walked into a boxing gym and started training.  After about a year, I finally felt ready for a fight, but it took two more years before USA boxing changed their amateur rules: no longer was I prohibited from fighting anyone under the age of 34.  The pool now enabled me to fight anyone between 19 and 40 years of age.

      From the very beginning, I declared boxing a mere hobby.  Yet that seemed irrelevant once Mike, the owner of the boxing gym and promoter of New Orleans' renowned Friday Night Fights, found me an opponent  a month and a half before the fight.

Frank the Trainer

      Next step was to find a trainer.  The deal with boxing trainers is a whole story in itself for another day.  In short I have gone through more trainers than underwear--with varying levels of articulateness, reliability, sleaziness, and criminal records.  The most previous trainer was a woman, and my favorite thus far.  But Anika was also a burlesque dancer and recent law graduate with extremely little time to spare a month and a half before my first ever fight.

      Then I found Frank.  Forty-six years old, former boxer himself turned private eye.  He and his twenty-three year old son have been gym rats for as long as I've been coming to the gym plus decades more.  As soon as my fight is set, I corner him and successfully implore him to train me.

      "You've decided to inflict bodily injury on another human being, Kim.  Now you have to live with this decision."  Those words were his first to me at the end of our first training session.  They were an indication of the intensity of the days to come.  But they did not indicate the level of pain I would be inflicting on myself.

Training Days

      Jumping jacks with a barbell in my hands, being spun around in the ring 20 times 'til I was dizzy, then taking a knee right before launching into punches running into the center of the ring, then 100 sit-ups to cool down.  For sparring, my partner was another of Frank's stallions, except 21-years-old, fit as an ox, and with Olympic aspirations.

     I am reasonably fit for my age but the regimen was exhausting and at no point did I enjoy an evening free of aches and pains.

      But in sparring I surprised Frank.  I surprised them all including the ever-cynical Mike, when I punched a contact lens right out of Scottie's head after she gave me a bruiser under my left eye.

      My reputation amongst the gym rats began to improve noticeably:  after a couple of gnarly sparring sessions, fist bumps were at an all time high, a seal of approval within this population.

      "I'll be honest Kim, I didn't think you'd be able to handle her, but now I think it's even.  You got heart kid, you got heart," says Mike.  From a man who owned an overweight pit bull and typically only spoke for the purpose of telling dirty jokes, this was high praise.

       Translation:  I can take a punch.  By all accounts, including my own, my advantage was internal--and lay deep underneath that belly fat I was striving to reduce.  In our qualifying spar, my opponent had superior arm strength and fitness; but truth be told, her face contorted to near tears after each punch I landed.

      The fact that she was sweet and hard-working was all irrelevant.  I wanted this fight.  I thought I didn't care about winning but the more I trained, the more I craved victory.

      I was not a particularly nice person over these six weeks.  Jamie was my opponent, and she weighed 10 pounds less than me a month out from the fight, despite being at least 1-2 dress sizes larger.  And it was likely that she was losing weight as she trained.  As a USA-Boxing Association-sanctioned event, I could not weigh more than 5 pounds than her.  To get there I had to stop drinking alcohol, a martyr-like act in a town like New Orleans, especially for a music manager.  I cut out most forms of fat including my beloved butter.  And it brought out my worst:  I picked fights with my band, I became ornery around loved ones.    By fight day, I was 10 pounds lighter.

      "Why" was the question asked most frequently of me in those weeks before and even after.  Truth be told, I'm not entirely sure why.  Clearly, I relish the difficulty in the task and the feeling of physical strength after training.  Adrenaline is a drug I enjoy.  And Frank, in all his verbal awkwardness, brought up another reason.  "Things have been tough for me out there there.  I lost a lot when my mom died a couple years ago and I am still rebuilding my practice.  But this place and this body, this training is the one thing I feel I can control."  Like Frank, I believe that for me too boxing is about gaining a sense of control.

      However, ultimately I believe my desire to box is because I am a born weirdo; my family will attest.  Despite all my privilege and education, I left the legal profession and have been selecting steadily less lucrative jobs.  My personal life is on a comparable trajectory as I select partners with increasingly unlikely odds of success.  And as for amassing wealth and stability, for my first house I chose a formerly blighted one in a historically dangerous neighborhood in New Orleans.  It would seem that my motto in life has been, "Why do things the easy way?"  

      But it truly has not been a conscious effort to be difficult.    After one of my less spectacular sparring sessions of getting the brains knocked out of me, I would not give up.  Frank ended that session with the following observation:  "I bet you were a real pain in the ass to your parents as a kid."

      He was right.  I was a difficult child, and I still am difficult.  Maybe that's why I like boxing.

Fight Day

      On the morning of fight day, it is raining cats and dogs, threatening to shut down the fight which is scheduled to be held in a parking lot of a bar and a Burger King.  I am dejected, hungry and cranky.  For consolation, I call my closest, gentlest friend, Taylor, a vegetarian jazz musician who has spent significant time in Vermont.  In consolation, he offers, "Well, maybe you can take up another activity that's not so concentrated on just one event, ya know?"  He is struggling for words, completely unable to understand my draw to boxing.  I try my best to gently end the phone call before he can suggest I take up yoga.

      Eventually the skies clear up and I check in for the fight.  I'm barely within 5 pounds of my opponent despite having lost 10.  I'm cranky as hell and have already snapped at the gym owner who has annoyed me to no end.  I sit down for my check-up and the doctor introduces himself as "Rocky."  I laugh uncontrollably.  "I mean, just for tonight?   Is that really your name?  Do you box?"  He explains that he doesn't and that's it's a family nick name.  Dr. Rocky checks my blood pressure, purses his lips and says, "That's ok, you're fine."  Frank glances over and looks at the numbers.  I'm confused given that I've always had an extremely low blood presser.  Frank also purses his lips, "That's normal for tonight, right doc?"  He confirms, "Yeah they all get amped up right before and she'll be back to normal after."  I don't bother asking for the numbers.

       About 30 friends and acquaintances have come on my behalf to cheer me on.  I appreciate their support and nervous of not disappointing them with a loss.  Co-workers have made a "Vicious Vu" sign to rally me on.  I have problems remembering names.  I have no intentions of ever doing this professionally, but I am nervous.  I am the the favorite, bets in the gym are placed on me, but I am clearly the underdog physically.  Three rounds, a minute and a half each.  Objectively very doable but subjectively inducing fear in my heart.

      Inside the ring the lights are bright.  I can't hear a thing except Frank.  "You've got to take this first round, you can't let the judges question your strength."  The bell rings and I explode into a fit of energy.  She is fighting completely differently from how she sparred, moving backwards almost constantly.  Despite her superior strength and fitness, she is on the ropes twice.  Bell rings.

       As I plant my butt on the stool, Frank says, "Keep going.  You need to get as many punches in as you can because she's strong, and you're not gonna knock her out."

      Round two starts and I'm still at it.  But her strength finally rears its ugly head and she lands a left straight in my head.  I am as unstoppable as her left straights which she is able to land even as I return her to the ropes.  Suddenly, just as the bell rings my nose feels hot.

       The crowd goes wild as the ring card girls strut their stuff and I use the melee to urge Frank to stop the nosebleed.  He shoves the q-tips as far as he can but unlike in training, he stops short of using the spray and blocking the flow with petroleum jelly.  I'm confused...what gives?  "Make it stop Frank!"  I am determined to keep fighting and I'll be damned if the judges stop the fight for a little nosebleed.

      In round three I am tired but I don't stop moving forward for fear that if I do I'll fall.  All the training tips, the techniques of stick and move, moving out of the southpaw's way, I've thrown it all away.  It is because I've looked into my opponent's face, and only I can see the abject fear in its contortions.  She is so much stronger than me, but her mind is not.  She looks dangerously close to tears, despite landing more right hooks in my face.  My nose won't stop bleeding and the ref calls for the doctor.  I implore Dr. Rocky and he lets me go back in.

      Round three ends and we are both exhausted.

      Back in the corner Frank attends to my still-bleeding nose as I dangle my lifeless arms.  For the first time that night I see my friends have taken up the entire front side of the ring.  Nose still gushing, I raise my lifeless paw in the air and with a big, dumb smile on my face they erupt in cheers.

      Back in the middle of the ring we wait for decision.  She clearly possessed more strength and physical control but I landed plenty of punches and consistently held the offensive; she was on the ropes at least three times.  In my mind I am Manny Pacquiao but in my body I am a lump of jelly.  Not until the ref raised my opponent's arm in victory was I able to discern who won.

      I stumble back to my corner more dejected than I previously imagined.  Frank gives me kudos and assures me that I didn't disappoint.  From the corner of my eye I catch Mike across the ring.  He gives me a nod and a wink.

      On the way to the fighter's section, Dr. Rocky rattles off a series of questions to check for concussion.  "What's your name, what day is it, where are we?"

      "I'm Kim Vu-Dinh, we're in New Orleans, and I just lost."

      He pats me on the back.  "You fought well Kim.""

      Immediately after my wraps are removed, two of my professor friends steadily make their way towards me with a beer and a flask of whiskey, and after a sip, I am immediately in good spirits--evidence that they are in fact my smartest friends.  I am congratulated by a series of friends and co-workers.  My vegetarian friend hugs me and is on the verge of tears.  I am high on adrenaline of boxing and losing.  Throughout the night I'm approached by at least half a dozen strangers of all races, genders, and sizes.  Clearly some were boxing-followers, some were fellow fighters, some I'd never met.  "Good fight, kid," and "Hey lady, I thought you had that one."  It was decent consolation after a physically painful loss.  A couple of the gym rats straight-up bear-hugged me.

      It was not until the end of the night, in the privacy of a porta-potty did I feel tears roll down my face.  I tried so damn hard and I lost.  That and my nose hurt.

      Surprisingly the day after was the hardest.  I had been training hard for a month and a half, two hours a day 4-6 days a week, yet those six minutes left my body in abject pain I'd never before felt. The day after was a cold and cloudy one, and the vegetarian drew me a bath and iced my nose, took me to a movie and picked up take-out.  The bruising around my eyes set in and my nose hurt to no end.  Despite even sparring half a dozen times with a fighter better than my opponent, I felt a touch of shock--both body and mind--which took me by surprise.  Chatting on my phone with a friend, he pointed out, "Well sure, it was just four and a half minutes, but it was like a four and a half minute car accident."

      I've been reasonably successful in my life, but I have failed before and I know what disappointment is.  But this was definitely the first time for me that failure was accompanied by physical pain.

      A couple days later my face is bruise-free and looks more or less back to normal but for weeks I'm left with a tender nose to remind me of my defeat.  Friends ask if I'll do it again.  "Maybe," I answer.  "Really?  Why?"  

      And though I can't explain it, I know I probably will.  In its own way, it was a journey unlike any other...I remember the few minutes in the ring, and get a little punch drunk.