Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Taboga: My New Love Affair

In the twelve years Erinn and I have lived in Panama, we’ve visited the island of Taboga many times. We have always done this, however, at her insistence.
Taboga is only a fifty-minute ferry ride from Panama City, and it’s a fabulous place to spend a day laying on the beach … if you like that sort of thing.

The problem is that while Erinn loves the sand, I don’t.

As a result, whenever we’ve traveled to Taboga, I’ve done so grudgingly.

I do, nevertheless, enjoy strolling through the town to take photographs of the lovely scenery and the quaint architecture—much of it colonial.

Also, when I visit Taboga I try to imagine moments from the pivotal role that the island played in the continent’s history. Because of the deep surrounding waters, Taboga became the perfect place for Francisco Pizarrro to build and launch the ships that went on to conquer the Inca Empire.

Today, however, Taboga is a sedate place with a population that—judging by the countless niches with images of Mary and other saints—is profoundly Catholic.

What made our most recent trip special was that, for the first time, we decided to spend the night on the island. I found the experience magical. After sunset, once the daytime tourists had returned home, the locals reclaimed their community, giving Taboga the sparkling charm of a pueblo.

I also loved that the islanders’ sense of aesthetics includes the scallop shell. With my current passion over the Camino de Santiago, I took this as a good omen.

In the morning of our second day there, after breakfast, Erinn and I went our separate ways: she to lay on the beach and I to climb to the cross, located on the highest point of the southern tip of the island.
The views there were breathtaking. In one direction, large ships waited for their turn to pass through the Canal.

But the most precious view was of the bay and the town. Since I was the only person up there that morning, I felt as if I owned the island.

After this experience, I’ll be thrilled to return to Taboga any time Erinn wishes. There is, however, one condition: we must spend the night.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Fifteen Books (That Have Marked Me)

There are moments in the lives of readers, like myself, when a book alters the way we see the world.  Something about the story and the way it is told touches us, drawing us into the author’s universe.  As a result, when we emerge from the experience we have been transformed and, almost always, for the better.  A work that realigns our hearts prepares us to embrace experiences that lay beyond the limited scope of our daily lives. Our understanding of issues becomes broader, and as a result we become wiser.
A large number of books have affected me in such a manner. They’ve even shaped the course of my life, nudging me along the path of becoming a writer.
I shall limit my list to fifteen books that have changed the way I look at writing and the world. (And I easily could mention dozens.) I have ranked this list in order of the impact they’ve had on me.
Cien años de soledad.  I was in my mid-twenties when I read the novel that earned Gabriel García Márquez the reputation of being one of the world’s most extraordinary writers.  This work—which has touched countless other readers as well—tells a story that’s uncannily familiar to me.  Many Latin Americans have told me that the Colombian author wrote the story of their families; and whenever I visit Macondo I feel the same way.  More importantly, reading this novel for the first time made me want to devote my life to the study of literature.

Don Quijote de la ManchaWhen the muses smiled upon the Spaniard, the modern novel was born.  I spent several years lost in this wondrous maze of Miguel de Cervantes’s creation—the effort culminating in my doctoral dissertation.  Every second was time well spent.

Pablo Neruda: Selected Poems.  This bilingual anthology contains the most striking poetry I’ve ever read.  Neruda’s work is so breathtaking, so human, so universal, and so true that it seems to have been written only yesterday.

In the Time of the Butterflies.  This book provided the spark that gave me the courage to write novels of my own.  Julia Alvarez’s work made it clear to me that history and fiction are powerful allies.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.  Why readers don’t flock in legions toward this book is something I find difficult to understand.  The story of the Castillo brothers moves me beyond my ability to explain these sentiments adequately.  All I can say is that I identify with Nestor’s son, who should have inherited a glorious legacy, but instead is destined to live with the thought of what might have been.

Crónica de una muerte anunciada.  I love the structure of this work—that is, the order in which events are narrated.  In this tale about a murder, the killers and their motive is learned early on.  Yet readers remain engaged until the end because we want to witness Santiago Nasar’s death.  Because of the narrative’s extraordinary effectiveness, I used it as the blueprint for Meet Me Under the Ceiba.

The Lord of the Rings.  J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic tale, which I first read in my early twenties, is vivid, compelling, and consistent. Also, in spite of being a fantasy, the story is startlingly real.  Professor Tolkien’s faith in his fictional world has been justly rewarded: his readers are loyal to the point of fanaticism—and that includes me.

Dreaming in Cuban.  A hypnotic and seductive novel.  Cristina Garcia’s narrative voice instantly captured my heart in this story of four women from the same family and the way in which the Cuban Revolution tore them asunder.

¡Yo!  Julia Alvarez’s third novel—the sequel to How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents—is ingenious when it comes to the way it traps the narrator of the original.  The tables are now turned on the storyteller, rendering her powerless.  Since this is what happened to Bernardo Martinez, the central character of, Bernardo and the Virgin, ¡Yo! provided the perfect model for my first novel.

The Power and the Glory.  Human frailties, the role of faith in our lives, and the power of redemption are the driving forces of Graham Greene’s masterful tale of a priest with many shortcomings fleeing for his life during Mexico’s Cristero Wars.  This novel, as well as Miguel de Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno, mártir were two important models from my third novel, The Saint of Santa Fe.

El lenguaje de la pasión.  When it comes to writing essays, Mario Vargas Llosa is my hero.  I may not always agree with his point of views, but his forceful, well-informed, poetic, and passionate style mesmerizes—and often angers—his readers.  This collection is the Peruvian’s author tour de force.

Island of the Blue Dolphins.  Scott O’Dell’s most highly regarded novel provides writers with a lesson on how to take a minor historical incident and creatively fill the unknown gaps.  The Californian’s terse writing style fits the story of an accidentally abandoned Indian girl who grows into adulthood through the use of her wits and her adherence to tradition. Island of the Blue Dolphins provides part of the foundation for my next novel, The Season of Stories.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  This book, which catapulted Hunter S. Thompson to legendary status, is a fun, startling, high-octane narrative of sheer lunacy.  After reading this novel I had to fight the urge—for weeks—to imitate Thompson’s unique style of writing.

In Cold Blood.  Every word of this account of the murder of a Holcomb, Kansas family is supposedly true.  And Truman Capote succeeds in keeping the narrative forceful and poetic throughout.

Salem’s Lot.  Stephen King on a somewhat serious list of literary works?  During my mid-teens I had given up on reading novels.  This gripping tale of a town taken over by vampires felt real and thus it terrified me.  For several nights in a row I’d wake up in a cold sweat, ready to drive a stake through any vampire’s heart.  Thankfully, the exhilaration of reading King’s masterful novel brought me back to the pleasure of reading.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Looking Forward to Christmas

Yesterday, Erinn and I purchased the plane tickets to travel to North Carolina and California over the Christmas break. This trip has become a yearly ritual. In addition to being a time for relaxation, it’s an important time to honor family ties.

Traveling to the United States in December is also a nice respite from the heat, at least for me. Although I love living in the tropics, I enjoy cooler weather. I admit that the winters are mild in the states we visit, but the chilled air provides a delightful break from the balminess of Panama.

What I love about visiting Erinn’s parents in Nashville, North Carolina, is that I get to take long, solitary walks along tree-lined streets and railroad tracks. The stillness provides the perfect background to think about writing projects.

What’s more, my mini-me lives with my nieces in North Carolina. He tells me that they take fabulous care of him. During my visits we get to catch up with one another. Although we usually end up having fierce arguments about the craft of writing, our bond is unbreakable.

After a week or so in North Carolina, we say farewell to Erinn’s family and fly across the continent to visit my mom and sisters in Fresno, California.

A tradition that has developed the last few years is for my siblings, their spouses, and Erinn and I to drive to the gorgeous mountain and ocean vistas that are near Central California. 

I must admit that my birth state can be absolutely breathtaking.

What makes my California visits particularly rewarding is the opportunity to enjoy Cal-Mex food. I grew up with this cuisine and miss it tremendously while living in Central America.

I realize it’s only September and that there’s still a bit of life ahead before the arrival of Christmas, but I’m already excited about the fun and vast outpouring of love that await us, once again, this holiday season.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A New Fixation

I’m a creature of obsessions. Sometimes, these obsessions enslave me. But in a writer’s life, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, more often than not, they fuel my creativity.
My current obsession is walking The Camino de Santiago across northern Spain. 

The seed was planted twelve years ago when Erinn and I met a young man who had recently completed the pilgrimage.
“It’s been the most significant experience of my life.” As he said this, his eyes took on the serene glow of someone who can step into the spiritual realm at will.
After that encounter, Erinn and I occasionally talked about walking The Camino, but it remained a distant dream, unlikely of materializing.
That started to change about a year ago when a former student posted on Facebook that she planned to walk The Camino with her father. It would be a college graduation present.
“Where did you get the idea of walking The Camino?” I asked her.  

I was surprised because I knew her well and throughout the years and countless conversations not once had the subject of The Camino come up.
“From watching The Way,” she said. “When the film ended, I had to walk The Camino.”
“Can Erinn and I join you?” I asked, unashamed about intruding on the father-daughter journey.
Her reply was vague enough for me to understand that I needed to embark on my own pilgrimage. Our exchange, however, inspired me to start researching The Camino in earnest. Since then I’ve learned that she was right—the journey is, indeed, an intensely personal thing.

Intrigued, my wife and I watched The Way—a film written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen.
When it ended, I said to Erinn, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take a group of students to walk The Camino with us?”
“Why don’t you organize it?” she answered. “I’m sure a few brave souls will sign up.”
I researched a little further and learned that to earn a Compostela—an official pilgrim's certificate—one needed to walk at least 100 kilometers (62 miles). In our case, that meant walking from the village of Sarria, the starting point for most. From there, it’s five days to Santiago de Compostela.
As Erinn predicted, a dozen brave souls signed up. Easter week of 2015, we will start on our journey.
And with that, I thought, my fixation over walking the Camino would be fulfilled.
But I couldn’t leave well enough alone.
I continued researching the Camino—its history, its miracles, its hardships, and its many tales of redemption and grace.
The more I learned, the more I realized that walking the Camino from Sarria would not be enough—at least for me.
Now, my fixation will not be satisfied until I walk the entire Camino Francés starting from St. Jean Pied de Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees.

There is a book in this quest, I am sure.
That’s my new obsession.
I will begin that journey in March of 2016—this time, alone.

At the moment, however, I am so excited about the walk with Erinn and the students that I’ve been wearing my hiking books every day for two weeks straight. I am determined to break them in fully before we leave for Spain.
The group pilgrimage of Easter 2015 promises to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
For now, the solitary pilgrimage of 2016 will just have to wait.
I can only handle one such obsession at a time.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Starting Up Again

Nine years ago, when blogging had just been unveiled, I decided to give this new platform for writers a try.  I loved the idea of publishing my work—and instantly—without intermediaries. What’s more, the potential of reaching an audience of thousands was an intoxicating notion.

I committed myself to posting a piece every week.  I wanted to develop my skills in writing personal essays.
I kept this commitment for five years.
In the end, although happy with my growth as a writer, producing an essay a week burned me out.
But I never stopped writing.
Since then, I’ve written and published my third novel, The Saint of Santa Fe

I am also close to finishing my first young adult novel, The Season of Stories.
Although I grew weary of cranking out essays, I found the exercise stretched me as a writer. My prose has become leaner—it’s more straightforward and free of artifice. In essence, these days I feel that I convey my ideas with greater clarity.

More importantly, perhaps, is that the effort of those five years resulted in the publication of Love Made Visible, a collection of writings I regard with fondness.

And now, once again, I am ready to commit to a weekly post. This time, however, I am limiting these posting to the simple perceptions of someone who lives, teaches, and writes in the tropics.