In Memory of Bob Taunt

•December 24, 2014 • Leave a Comment

In Memory of Robert O. Taunt, III
March 1, 2014

I first met Bob Taunt in 1977 at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco. At the time I was a volunteer lawyer for the San Francisco Greenpeace office and had been sent to discuss a benefit concert that Bob had offered to produce. Well, this is interesting, I remember thinking. The Clift Hotel was hardly a regular hangout for local environmental activists, and Bob hardly fit the image of your typical scruffy unwashed Greenpeacer. But as I got to know him it was clear that his passion for the environment, and for the Greenpeace cause in particular, was exceeded by no one. And while some in Greenpeace may have been a bit put off by what they perceived as his elitist image, I think there was more to it than a mere appreciation for nice clothes and the finer things in life. Bob wanted Greenpeace to be taken seriously, and he understood the importance of image in gaining access to the corridors of power. As things developed, plans for a benefit concert quickly were put aside as Bob’s talents were recognized and he became deeply involved in Greenpeace’s two major campaigns of the time, its opposition to Soviet whaling in the Pacific and to the annual harp seal slaughter off the coast of Newfoundland. Bob had a unique ability to open doors and get things done through persistence and his force of personality, complimented by his contacts with political figures such as Leo Ryan and Governor Jerry Brown. No one understood how to use the media better, or could perform with more aplomb in front of the camera, than Bob. The fact that he had Walter Cronkite’s home phone number didn’t hurt either. In 1978 he wound up being the chief organizer of the Greenpeace Seal campaign, putting together a delegation consisting of Leo Ryan and Jim Jeffords, plus a number of celebrities, to go to the ice to bear witness to the slaughter. When the Canadian government sent a representative on a press tour of the US to defend the hunt, Bob sprung into action and organized a counter tour, flying to New York and almost getting the Canadians arrested for bringing a can of seal meat into the US in violation of the Marine Mammal Act. As you can imagine, Bob was in his element. Following that campaign, he also helped organize and lead the 1978 anti whaling voyage in the Pacific. Bob also devoted a great amount of energy trying to move Greenpeace to a higher level of organization, being appointed head of a committee attempting to create a structure for an international governing body, an endeavor which unfortunately came to naught. This aspect of his work deeply pained him. Greenpeace at the time was a cauldron of competing political factions all out to protect or expand their turf, something that Bob found distressing. His allegiance was always clearly stated to Greenpeace as an idea, in its largest sense, and he hated having to take sides in its often petty internecine struggles. And while some in the organization felt that the righteousness of their cause made them exempt from the normal standards of behavior Bob always insisted on the highest level of honesty and integrity in his dealings.

But aside from all this he could also be very entertaining. His beautifully decorated flat on Liberty Street in San Francisco, with its spectacular view of the San Francisco skyline, became an alternative nerve center for Greenpeace operations, and was also the scene of a lot of fun and good times, as I’m sure Gary, his housemate, can attest. One episode I particularly remember, driving back to our hotel from a meeting on a foggy Vancouver night, Bob launched into a series of impersonations of various Greenpeace figures, including myself, that had us all in stitches.

Years later, I would often wonder, what was it about the Greenpeace cause that Bob, and so many others, found so compelling? I think in Bob’s case it went beyond a compassion for the suffering of the whales and the seals, and beyond a concern for the damage to the environment wrought by man’s greed and carelessness. I think Bob had a deep aversion to cruelty and violence in all its forms, and for him the image of blood on the ice or the image of a dying harpooned whale symbolized that violence and cruelty which permeates our existence to the point that it is almost taken for granted. Bob felt mankind could do better, and he tried valiantly to show a way to greater compassion and understanding.

And many years later, only recently, I recall watching on television at his home a gathering of politicians for the inaugural of Barak Obama, and thinking how by all rights Bob should have been among that group. Certainly he was more handsome, smarter, more compassionate, more eloquent, definitely better dressed, than most in that crowd. I wasn’t alone in sometimes noting that Bob seemed cut from the same cloth as the Kennedys. But such was not meant to be, and instead Bob devoted himself to making life better for those around him, and in that he certainly succeeded. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone coming in contact with Bob not coming away feeling enriched in some way—except, perhaps, for that waiter at the Buena Vista Café who had the misfortune of delivering a gin fizz that was not up to his standards; or that desk clerk at the Queen Mary Hotel in Long Beach who had the unfortunate task of informing Bob that room service was closed for the night; or that producer at ABC news whose job it was to inform Bob that the Greenpeace footage it was going to air on the evening news that night had been bumped.

Of the two of us Bob was definitely the more loquacious and were he in my place doubtless he could go on much longer. I will only add one final thought. As I’m sure all of you know, Bob endured more than his share of loss and suffering. During our time in Greenpeace, it was the loss of his friend Leo Ryan that hit him the hardest. Life is a mystery, and who can explain why, except to say that Bob rarely complained or expressed self pity. Instead, he lived life to the fullest, and in doing so gave us all joy and inspiration. My only regret is that we simply did not have more good times together, but for those things we did share I am truly grateful and can only express my deepest respect and admiration. Thank you Bob, and god speed.

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In Memory of Deb Jayne

•December 19, 2014 • 5 Comments

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deb

Project 80

•December 3, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Is it possible, or even desirable—not to mention socially responsible—to attempt the feat of dining at 80 different restaurants over a period of 80 days? Being almost halfway through this task of epicurian proportions, following is an account of #35.

Saturday, December 3, 2011. I arrived in front of Frances at 4:43 pm, the first one in line, thereby assuring me a seat at the counter when they open at 5:00. My equivalent to queuing up for a new iPhone. I’m thinking this will be my definitive visit—or maybe not. I’ve been going to Frances, a now legendary San Francisco restaurant, since it opened 2 years ago, not as often as I should, and most times I’ve left rapturous, although a couple of times I have been mildly disappointed. This time we will see. My perceptions and tastes have been sharpened by my current project—to visit 80 different restaurants in 80 days. A frivolous mission, you might think, the meaning of which I’ve had to wrestle with, although not profoundly. I’ll do it anyway. Its my personal economic stimulus package. If the western economies all collapse—which I regard as inevitable at some point—people will still have to eat. Restaurants employ a lot of people—from farm to table, as they like to say—and we are blessed to live in what will probably be someday viewed as the golden age of dining. So enjoy!

Frances occupies a small space on the corner of 17th and Pond in the Castro District. Tables are closely packed together for those fortunate enough to have a reservation. Those who do not can jockey for a space at the counter—and there is always a line. Standing outside by the front door in the darkening twilight I can I can hear a woman’s voice inside going over tonight’s menu with the staff. Is it Melissa Perello, the beautiful young chef/owner who makes this all happen? Probably. I could peek through the door but I don’t want to be too obvious. Meanwhile, I turn around and notice there are now several people in line behind me, talking of course about how hard it is to get a reservation. And then, happening all too fast, Melissa herself strides out the front door, stopping as whe walks past me to say hi. She seems to recognized me, says its nice to see me again, flashes her beautiful smile. Five minutes to go!

5:01. They’re always a little late opening, but never by much. I’m in, first seat at the counter, the choice spot in the entire place, which fills up rapidly. It doesn’t take long to scan the menu and decide on the clams, the celery root soup, and the Sonoma duck breast. As usual, I order the house blended red wine from Miraflores Winery in a carafe where they charge you according to how much you drink, $1 per ounce. Great wine, great deal! Soon the clams arrive and I am in heaven. Two large shells filled with minced cherry stone clams baked with winter greens, fennel, and scallop and bacon cream. No sooner do I dive into the clams than a runner arrives presenting me with an order of the calamari salad as a gift from Melissa. Now I really feel special!

Next course: celery root soup with chestnuts, baby turnips and chanterelle mushrooms. The broth arrives in a separate pitcher and is poured over the other ingredients by the server. I pause to enjoy the smell wafting up from the bowl—the smell alone is worth the price.

And then: nothing less than the best duck I’ve ever had in my life. Thick little rectangular cubes of amazingly tender and perfected cooked Sonoma duck breast served in a bowl with cotecchino sausage, sauteed escarole and Italian butter beans, pulled together by the light but flavorful au jus sauce again poured from a pitcher by the server.

All this time a small crowd swirls around behind me, people arriving with reservations, or people without reservations but with high hopes. Two young women chat standing by the door, drinking wine. One of them starts a conversation with me, a delightful creature named Jennifer whose husband is waiting outside. They recently married after he proposed to her in Paris. A bit tipsy, I join her in waxing ecstatically about how wonderful everything is.

Dessert. Normally I would get my old favorite, the lumberjack cake, a creation not to be missed. But tonight I opt for the chocolate almond ‘clafoutis’ which is not exactly a clafoutis but more like a round of chocolate cake with a carmelized banana in the middle and salted caramel ice cream atop burnt caramel on the side. In a nod to moderation I left a small bite uneaten, paid my bill and said goodbye to Jennifer whose party is now seated next to me. But before leaving I walked back to the window opening to the kitchen to say goodbye to Melissa. “That was the best duck I ever had in my life!” I exclaimed. “Yes!” went Melissa. And so I departed into the night, restaurant 35 out of 80, a meal that will not soon be forgotten!

The Fate of the Ohana Kai

•July 17, 2011 • 6 Comments

During the summer of 1977 a group of renegade Greenpeacers placed their hopes of saving the world’s whales in the hands of a rusting former US Navy sub chaser which they painted with rainbows and renamed the Ohana Kai. It was to venture out into the Pacific from its Hawaii port to confront the Soviet whaling fleet and hopefully put an end to the barbaric practice of factory whaling on the high seas. The outcome of the voyage was mixed, but the eventual fate of the Ohana Kai was not a noble one. It limped back to port after locating and boarding the Russian factory ship to pass out leaflets and express their disapproval, then set sail for San Francisco which was to become its final destination. Many dreamers hoped it might one day sail again on its noble mission, but more realistic heads prevailed and it was decided the only graceful way out was to put it up for sale. One day Nancy Jack, as representative of Greenpeace Hawaii charged with disposing of the boat, announced she had found a potential buyer. “He said to meet him at the California Canadian Bank on California street at 3 this afternoon and he will have a certified check for $17,000! What should we do?” Instead of being pleased this news seemed to throw her into a panic. “Well,” I replied calmly, “let’s just show up there at 3 and if he has the money the boat is his.” Indeed the money materialized, in the hands of one Palmer Albertsen, who I would get to know a bit better over the ensuing months. Albertsen claimed to represent a Seattle investor by the name of David Knutsen, who he had convinced that with a bit of sprucing up the Ohana Kai could make him a fortune fishing for king crab in Alaska. Ownership was transferred with the help of the local Panamanian consul, Sr. Mosaquites, and Albertsen moved the boat to an inconspicuous pier underneath the Bay Bridge, where he promptly had it stripped of anything of value. After that the boat slipped loose from its moorings during a storm and floated across the bay to the Berkeley mudfalts, where it was salvaged by a waterfront character who lived on it for years with his family and a group of followers until they were finally evicted and the boat was sold for scrap.

The hapless Mr. Knutsen was just one of a long string of innocents up and down the Pacific coast who had been swindled by Albertsen, a crusty old sea captain who could weave a tall tale and seemed to relish his role as a modern day pirate. He took me out to lunch after the sale was consummated and casually mentioned that the “Moonies”—–followers of the controversial Rev. Sun Myung Moon—had moved big time into the Bay Area fishing business and were making a fortune harvesting black cod with a small fleet of boats. “We could do that too,” he proposed almost casually, as if it really didn’t matter one way or another to him. “We can sell all the black cod we can get to the Chinamen for $1.69 in the round,” Albertsen promised. It all sounded a bit too good to be true. I walked around Fisherman’s Wharf, trying to find the mysterious Moonies rolling in cash, but all I saw were a few blue collar fishermen who probably were barely making ends meet. Nor did I ever find the elusive Chinamen with their wads of cash. But shortly thereafter Albertsen appeared with a rather substantial fishing trawler called the Theo which he brought down from Seattle. It needed a bit of work, so he recruited a crew of stragglers who he found on Fisherman’s wharf and convinced to work for no pay on the promise that they would earn a share of the catch. Everyone would make a fortune when summer came and the Theo sailed to Alaska for the salmon season. In the meantime, we would fish for black cod off the Golden Gate.

Eventually the Theo was ready for its maiden voyage. I had made rough calculations of future riches based on how many pounds of black cod you could squeeze in the Theo’s hold times the price the Chinamen would pay, scribbled on a piece of paper which I showed to my banker who probably thought I was nuts but gave me $10,000 anyway. The irony of a Greenpeacer seeking to profit off the plundering of the oceans was apparently lost on me. I even recruited Ann Yaeger, former Greenpeace bookkeeper, to sign on as the ship’s cook, and we provisioned it with fabulous food, most of which Albertsen absconded with and had his son sell at flea markets. I apparently assumed that no fishing boat ever came back until it was filled with fish, but that assumption was soon put to the test when the Theo limped back into port after several days at sea. I was shocked to see the hold was completely empty, with the exception of one shimmering fish lying on its side on a shelf. The owner of the hofbrau on the pier where the Ohana Kai docked had heard rumors of our endeavors and also showed up to meet us. He was very happy to buy our entire catch. “Let me know if you get any more fish like that one,” he said, trying to sound serious but probably wondering what in the world we are all about.

By now it was obvious something was wrong, and one night shortly thereafter Albertsen fired up the engine of the Theo and slipped out the Golden Gate in the middle of the night headed for Alaska, leaving in his wake another group of dispirited souls who woke up the next morning to find that their dreams of riches had evaporated in Albertsen’s wake.

In the meantime, another drama was unfolding regarding the proceeds from the sale of the Ohana Kai. It had been decided by Greenpeace Hawaii that the $17,000 was destined as partial repayment to Jean Paul Fortom-Gouin, a Bahamian businessman who had put up much of the money for its initial purchase. Jean Paul was a mysterious character with a passion for saving whales. It was he who had helped bring an end to commercial whaling by coming up with the idea of stacking the International Whaling Commission with non-whaling nations and convincing the Panamanian government to hire him as its IWC representative. But Jean Paul was far away engaged in other matters, and signed a power of attorney giving Nancy Jack authority over disposition of the funds. Nancy ensconced herself in an apartment on San Francisco’s South Park and started her own environmental organization called ACE, all purportedly with the approval of Jean Paul. The one achievement I can recall was that she commissioned a large inflatable whale named Cachalot which she took around to show at various festivals. Needless to say, the money soon evaporated and Nancy relocated to Southern California, never to return. Months later I received a phone call from Jean Paul summoning me to meet him at a Fisherman’s Wharf bar. Jean Paul was no nonsense. “Where’s my money,” he demanded. I was flustered. Well, Nancy had spent it. I certainly had not seen a cent of it. Hadn’t he given her a power of attorney? He gave me a pained but knowing look, obviously thinking that Nancy and I had conspired to pull a fast one on him. “Well,” he concluded brusquely, but with an air of resignation, “I’m sure you have everything you need.”

Travel articles

•June 21, 2010 • 1 Comment

Paris Restaurants Worth a Metro Ride
Hemingway’s Madrid

The Best of Brazil

After El Bulli, Spain Looks Forward

Back to Provence

Hotels of the 6th

Australia’s Great Ocean Road

Paris East and West

Frank Bruni’s Favorite Restaurants of Rome

Eataly

Tigre Delta, Argentina

A Tour of Montparnasse

Europe Without Hotels

36 Hours in Rome–Here I Come!

An Hour From Paris

Dining in Bilbao

36 Hours in Charleston SC

France’s Dordogne River Valley

Information on cell phone service in France from Bonjour Paris.com

Lerici: An Italian beauty without foreign suitors

Perched cities of the Cote d’Azur

 The Mexican Riviera Maya

Henry James’ Italy

 Mafia B&Bs in Sicily

France’s Dordogne River Valley

Pizza Tasting II

•July 31, 2009 • 2 Comments

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Ellen and Jason Green prepare slices for the blind tasting

Ellen’s second annual pizza tasting took place on Wednesday, July 29, 2009. Eight guests were to rate eight pizzas, culled from the Bay Area’s plethora of pizza palaces. I was recruited to collect the entrants from San Francisco, which this year happened to be from Delfina Pizzeria on 18th and a newcomer on the scene, Tony’s Pizza in North Beach. Ellen’s friend Craig picked up an entry from Picco in Marin County and Ellen herself grabbed a half-baked pizza from the Cheeseboard in Berkeley, one from the defending champion, Dopo, in Oakland, and a final entry personally baked by Nel da Silva, pastry chef at Market Hall in Rockridge which just recently added pizzas to their offerings. The competition took place at Ellen’s home, where the pizzas were individually reheated and served in a blind tasting. Ellen had prepared scoring sheets for each participant–an endless source of controversy, it turned out, as each pizza had to be rated 1-5 (or in some cases 1-10) on various factors related to the crust, sauce, cheese, and toppings, with a possible total score of 100. One could argue endlessly. How do you score the cheese if there is no cheese? Under sauce, what about quantity? Do you score higher for more and less for less, even if it was too much in the first case and just right in the second? And what’s this “Thick/Thin” item under crust? What if you like thin but its thick, or vice versa? All of this led some to abandon the individual scoring items and just assign a total number of points up to 100. Even that caused controversy. How do you then determine the winner? If you just add the total points, then someone who scored conservatively would be given less weight in the scoring than someone who gave promiscuously high scores. But back to the pizza…Nel’s was an heirloom tomato creation with a surprisingly good crust; Tony’s two entries were a Sicilian style pie which someone compared to a school cafeteria creation and a somewhat boring classic New York style; Picco’s was a acceptable sausage and pepperoni combination; Dopo’s was, as usual, excellent; and Delfina’s two entries scored both highest and lowest by fairly universal acclaim. The winner was its quattro fromagio with house-cured pepperoni added, while the loser was its brocolli rabe pizza. I felt bad about that as I have had that particular pie many times and always liked it, but sadly it just didn’t travel and reheat well (I can report, however, that I reheated, for the second time, a slice of the quattro fromagio for lunch the next day and it still retained a good portion of its charm). So how was the winner determined? Instead of adding up the individual scores, each person stated their 1st, 2nd and 3rd choices. Surprisingly, with only a couple exceptions everyone selected the same 3 pizzas as their favorites, just in different orders. Points were awarded for finishing 1st, 2nd or 3rd and the winner determined accordingly. As stated, Delfina came in a convincing first. The big surprise was that Nel came in a strong second against his heavy hitting competition. Third place was nabbed by Dopo. Finally, it was suggested next year that we rent a limosine and drive from each pizzeria to the next so the pizzas could be sampled fresh. That is, if we can ever stand to look at pizza again after such a night of unbridled indulgence.

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Nel da Silva’s surprise second place finisher

For those who still want more, following is the account of the 2008 tasting:

For all those eagerly awaiting, it is time to announce the results of a special pizza tasting held by the renowned Ellen Tussman, longtime Bay Area caterer and restauranteur extraordinaire, at her home in the Oakland Hills. Friends were enlisted from far and wide to collect and bring to this extraordinary event pizzas from the following purveyors: Dopo and Pizzaiolo in Oakland, Gioia in Berkeley, and Mulberry Street and Picco in Marin County. Eight participants rated the pizzas in a blind tasting based on characteristics of the crust, cheese, toppings, presentation, and intangibles. All agreed that the single outstanding pizza of the night was the “For Love of Mushroom” pizza from Mulberry Street, self-described as a “Rich and Filling pizza on a Whole Wheat blended crust with a White Sauce, a Garlic/Herb/ Mushroom saut, Mozzarella & Provolone cheeses Garnished with a Flavorful Red Wine reduction.” However, all things being considered, the winner was the pizza from Dopo, which fell more into the category of a traditional Italian-style thin crust pizza that one could enjoy almost everyday, as opposed to the Mulberry sample which was rich and exotic but something to be reserved for a special occasion. We sampled two varieties from Dopo, a simple margarita and one with coppa, and both excelled in the quality of the ingredients, the perfection of the crust, and the overall taste and appearance. Bravo Dopo! Least favorite (not to my surprise, consistent with my experience at the restaurant) was the one from Pizzaiolo (although apparently it won last year’s competition) and the one from Picco (although I myself liked the Picco entry—but the crust was a weak point and perhaps it suffered because it was vegetarian). In the middle fell the pepperoni pie from Goioa, which had a deliciously good crust and was well balanced in the amount and quality of ingredients. Various complex calculations were made ranking the pizzas based on value–i.e., weighing the scores against price per slice, but we all agreed this was dubious as, for example, the Goioa slices were much larger than anyone else’s and so a true comparison would have to be made based on weight. So, by unanimous agreement, we extend well-earned kudos to Dopo in recognition of their efforts to serve the Bay Area pizza-loving community and hope they will enjoy continued success and pizza accolades for years to come.

A Huichol Donkey’s Tale

•December 11, 2007 • Leave a Comment

I am a simple donkey who lives in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico.  My owner is a Huichol Indian named Juan Garcia, a farmer who lives with his wife and three children in the community of Nueva Colonia.  The Huichol moved to this area many hundreds of years ago from the lands to the east, and their lives have changed little since.  The Spanish came, but mostly left us alone because our land was so remote and we had nothing they wanted.   Life is very simple for us.  We have no electricity or telephones, things that I hear are quite common in the rest of the world.  My life as a donkey is not too bad.  I do my work as I am told and do not question or complain.  Those things are for humans.  But I know these mountains very well and see many things, which normally I keep to myself, as the ways of humans are not that interesting to me.

One day recently when my master was gone a strange man came to my house.  He was not a Huichol, but looked more like one of those Spanish conquistadors, with light skin and hair and fine features.  He was dressed humbly and wore a straw hat.  He was looking for a donkey to carry his pack down the mountain to our sacred ceremonial site where the Festival of the First Fruits was to be held in two days.  My master’s wife was in a good mood and to my dismay tied a rope around my neck and handed it to the strange man without even negotiating a price.  His name was Juan Negrin.

Juan led me away to the nearby ranch where Andres lived.  Juan claimed to be his compadre and had spent the night there along with his friend David who had arrived with him from a place called “civilization”.  I have never been there but have heard much about it.  I could tell that Andres was not that happy to have visitors show up unannounced and ask to spend the night in his small compound.  They had slept on the floor in his storeroom and now Andres was loading their things on my back.  Obviously his visitors knew nothing about how to deal with a donkey.  Before we left, the wife of Andres served them a traditional breakfast of blue corn tortillas and bean soup with a little bowl of salsa on the side.  One is supposed to make pieces of the tortillas into the shape of spoons with which to eat the soup, and I was amused to observe that the visitors seemed unable to master this simple technique. 

When it was time to leave Juan took my rope and led me out across a meadow with David in the rear.  I was not thrilled with this assignment, and so held back and made him struggle to get me moving.  Juan handed the rope to David, and eventually I resigned myself to my fate and followed along reluctantly, stopping to snack on mouthfuls of grasses and tasty plants whenever I could.

As I suspected, Juan did not know his way and promptly went off in the wrong direction.   He led us down a steep and treacherous path to the foot of the cliffs where he thought the ceremonial center was located.  At the bottom we came to a clearing where a couple of small houses were located.  I was surprised that Juan did not stop to ask for directions.  Instead, he took the trail that went off to the right and followed it for about half an hour before giving up and returning to the two houses  This time he decided to go straight, following a trail which went down into a canyon.  This was really a bad choice and I was getting tired, so I gingerly sat down in the path, balancing my load so I did not tip over.  This seemed to make the humans very worried, so I struggled back to my feet after a short rest.  They made a right turn and started scrambling up a hill where they eventually encountered a Huichol woman riding on another donkey who I did not know.  The woman told them to take a path to the right, which they followed until it eventually returned them to the clearing with the two houses.  We had wasted two hours making this ridiculous loop.  Now Juan took the only remaining option, the trail to the left.  It led through some swampy meadows and eventually to the edge of a steep canyon.  To my dismay they started to go down into the canyon, but fortunately it was getting dark and they came to their senses and turned back.  They came to a stone wall, found an opening in it, and walked across a wide meadow to another stone wall where they found another opening.  It was not wide enough for me to pass and David had to remove many of the stones before I could squeeze through.  By this time Juan could barely stand up from exhaustion and it was getting darker by the minute.  They decided they had no option but to stop and spend the night outdoors, and try to find their way in the morning.   

Pondering their situation, David stood there giving me a quizzical look.  I could see he was thinking that it would be easy to unpack me, but he wasn’t sure they would be able to figure out how to load me up again in the morning.  That did it for me.  I had played along with this folly long enough, but now it was time for me to take things into my own hands. They had not bothered to tie me up yet, so I set off by myself up a path.  David followed me, seeming to sense that I knew what I was doing.  I rounded the crest of a small hill where the trail merged with a larger one.  Up ahead on the right I could see a glowing ember suspended eerily in the night air.  Getting closer I saw it was a Huichol standing motionless holding a burning branch about a hundred feet off the path.  What he was doing there at that time was a mystery (I mentioned that humans are strange).  Juan went up to him and began a conversation with the obvious admission that he was lost.  To my surprise, it turned out that the Huichol recognized Juan, although Juan did not recognize him.  He had stayed at Juan’s house several years before in a place called Guadalajara.  Many Huichol, I knew, made visits outside the mountains when they became sick or for other unknown reasons.  They never took donkeys with them on these trips, but I had listened to all their stories.  I knew that Guadalajara was a huge city inhabited by eight million humans.  In my life I have never seen more than a few dozen humans in one place, and can hardly imagine such a sight.  The smell must be horrendous! 

The Huichol, a man named Antonio, agreed to let the outsiders stay at his house for the night, so he took my rope and led us there.  It was no surprise to me that he lived in the very same house that we had already passed three times before.  I heard David mention that to Juan, but Juan became quite angry and insisted they had never passed by there before.  “All the houses up here look the same!”  he barked. 

The next morning Antonio came and got me and loaded me up with the packs.  He was going to lead us to the ceremonial center, which is called Kieruwitua, but after a short while he simply pointed the way and turned back to go home.  I was worried that they would get lost again, but fortunately they managed to find their way.  Kieruwitua was a two hour hike on the other side of a range of hills from where they had wandered for eight hours the day before, ending up no closer to their destination than when they had begun!  Never before have I had such a dismal experience, but I admit I performed admirably as I felt sorry for these outsiders who were so helpless in the land I know so well.

Once they arrived at the ceremonial site Juan led us to a compound where the eldest of the Huichol elders lived.  He also was a compadre of Juan.  Juan had heard he was very ill, but he wasn’t there.  His son welcomed them and showed them to a small hut where they could stay.  David tied me stupidly to a tree inside the compound, but I did not complain as I was able to amuse myself by devouring choice stalks from the small patch of corn growing nearby.  Soon the son discovered my special treat and took me outside the compound and tied me up on a small knoll from which I could observe all the comings and goings at the ceremonial center.  I was left there alone for two full days, except once when David stopped by and patted me on the neck, a human expression of affection that I do not particularly care for.

I had been to the ceremonial center many times before.  It is like a small village arranged around a central clearing, but no one actually lives there.  It is used only for Huichol ceremonies that take place at certain times of the year  At one corner of the clearing is a large round temple building with a tall thatched roof.  Smaller temples and “god houses” built by individual Huichol surround the circle, along with other small buildings used as communal accommodations by Huichol from outside the immediate area. The center is nestled against a high cliff in a beautiful lush valley surrounded on all sides by mountains with long sweeping ridges punctuated by arrow shaped peaks.  The land is blanketed with oak and pine forests interspersed with meadows covered with wildflowers of many colors and, in the immediate area of the center, corn fields tended by the Huichol who live in the area.  There is no electricity or roads or telephones or any of the other things that belong in civilization.  Humans from civilization are always awed by the feeling of being in a place such as this, where an ancient culture still lives in harmony with the earth.

The Festival of the First Fruits takes place in October at the time of the corn harvest, and must be completed before anyone can partake of the fruits of that harvest.  I have been to several of these festivals and they are quite charming.   It is a family event and the children, who seem very happy, participate in all aspects of the event.  There is drumming, chanting, music and dancing, all of which has a quality of  sweetness and gentleness that I am told is not found in the outside world, where things are very loud, noisy and raucous.  The celebration begins around noon the first day with drumming and chanting.  The children are given rattles and play along for hours.  This is part of their training so they can learn discipline and feel part of the community.  At sunset there is a short break when food is served, including tortillas of all different kinds, guava fruits, and bowls of beef broth.  Then the ceremony moves inside the temple for more chanting, drumming, music and dancing, continuing all night until noon the following day, when there is a ceremony where each person comes to an altar to receive a blessing and a symbolic ration of corn from the new harvest. 

Very few outsiders attend our events, as we do not encourage visitors and in our area there is no such thing as “tourism”.  A human device known as a “camera” is not even allowed in our territory. There were a handful of Mexicans there who had some connection with the Huichol.  One of them was a woman named Patricia Diaz, a friend of Juan who had driven he and David up to the mountains from Guadalajara.  I am told that she also has spent many years working with the Huichol and is quite famous for her work against the use of pesticides in Mexican agriculture.  Of course, here in the Huichol mountains we do not allow pesticides or chemicals of any kind to be used in our cornfields.  Patricia had arrived the day before with a small group of three other Mexicans who are working on a project to increase the stock of deer in the mountains.  I myself have not seen many deer, but to me they are strange animals, keeping to themselves and not wanting to carry packs or do any work.  Patricia and her friends had not gotten lost on the way, nor did they bring any donkeys. 

Besides David there was only one other person from outside Mexico, a shy and mysterious young woman who kept to herself.  After dinner was served Juan sat down next to her and asked where she was from.  “Bosnia” she answered.  Juan asked her opinion of a man named Tito, who I understand had once been the ruler of a country called Yugoslavia that had included Bosnia.  The woman admitted to having a certain respect for him, which seemed to please Juan.  “My grandfather was very good friends with Tito,” Juan smiled.  His grandfather was once the prime minister of Spain, the land from which the conquistadors had come, until he had been forced into exile after losing a civil war against a man named Franco.  Did that make Juan a conquistador?  I think not.  He had spent most of his adult life, over thirty years, working on behalf of the Huichol, “performing service” as he called it, and had something of a legendary status among my people, unique among outsiders.  For this I had to respect him.  He had apparently done much for the Huichol, and he was here to ask their approval to establish a website that would contain pictures and materials about Huichol history and culture.  He wanted to put a computer somewhere in Nueva Colonia so that Huichol could look at the website and learn about their history and traditions.  As a donkey, I do not understand websites or computers or why one would need to be reminded that they have a history.

Juan asked the woman from Bosnia why she was there.  She stated that the year before she had taken peyote and had not felt well since.  Peyote I know is a plant that humans like to consume at their ceremonies, although at this festival there did not seem to be very much of it.  It has to be gathered in the desert to the east, and the Huichol conduct pilgrimages there in the spring to collect it.   “Do you know about brujos?”  she asked Juan.  Juan thought for a minute before answering.  “Yes, there were once men who were considered witches, but they were not really witches.  They were accused of that by the Catholic church, but it was done only to persecute them and it was not true.”   Apparently Juan scorns the Catholic church and their leader, the Pope, but this was not the information the woman was seeking.  Someone had advised her to find a mixed blood medicine man, a brujo, who could cure her and that was why she was here.  Juan disagreed with this advice.  “The mestizos do not know as much as the Huichol,” he counseled.  “Before taking peyote, the Huichol say that you must perform a fast, and you must also confess your sexual sins, not in private like the Catholics do, but in public for everyone to hear.  That is probably what is causing your physical problems, that you have not confessed your sexual sins.”   David was sitting next to Juan and I could see him wrinkle his brow, concerned that the woman might think that Juan was inviting her to confess to him forthwith, but Juan reassured her that this was not the case.  “Of course, you should not take peyote tonight because you have eaten,” Juan concluded,  The woman thanked him sincerely for his advice, and that was the last I saw of her.

After the final ceremony, Juan and David decided to leave the site with Patricia and the other Mexicans.  I was loaded up with the packs and we headed up the switchback trail that led back up the mountain to Nueva Colonia.  Juan had been given some peyote and most of the group consumed some on the way up.  Juan claimed the Huichol used it to help them walk long distances, but I had never noticed that the Huichol needed any help in order to walk.  The ascent only took about an hour.  At the top was parked the truck in which Patricia had come and everyone began to pile in, except David.  “Get in,” Patricia urged,  “we can pull the donkey from inside the truck.”  David refused.  “No, I have too much respect for this donkey and we’ve developed too much of a bond for me to allow him to be dragged along behind a truck,” he said.  Personally, it didn’t really matter to me, but I guess humans are prone to grandiose gestures.  “I will walk behind the truck with the donkey,” he insisted.  

David didn’t realize that we were still an hour and a half from my home.  He seemed puzzled that I was in no hurry, and even though I no longer had my load, he still had to exert the same effort to pull me along behind him.  He didn’t understand that for a donkey, load or no load, there is never a hurry.  Time is something that only humans concern themselves with.  Nonetheless, David seemed to enjoy the walk.  It was just before sunset and the dirt road took us along the beautiful mountain-top plateau with its lush meadows and forests.  Eventually Patricia got out and walked with us.  A Huichol woman came towards us out of a field carrying only a small basket with a few ears of corn.  She was wearing a colorful traditional dress and I could tell that the outsiders were awed by her beauty. “Do you know where we can find the ranch of Juan Garcia?” Patricia asked.  We were very near by now.  The woman waved across the field in the correct general direction, then admired the scarf that Patricia was wearing.  Patricia immediately took it off and gave it to the woman, who thanked her and walked off down the road.   

My long journey was nearly over.  Although David had led me the entire way, Juan got out of the truck and insisted that it would be better if he delivered me back to my owner.  I raised a bit of a fuss just to be difficult.  My master and his wife were not at home, so we were greeted instead by their eldest daughter.  She was very excited to see such an unusual group of humans and welcomed them warmly.  Juan asked her what my price was for the four days I had served them.  She shrugged a bit, then suggested 50 pesos.  I was a bit insulted, but it meant little to me.  I had performed my duty and my masters would never know the strange details.  Juan suggested we give them a bit more, and David suggested 100 pesos.  Juan balked, thinking it a bit much, but David lied, saying he only had 100 peso bills.

“Does the donkey have a name?”  Patricia asked.  Again a shrug.  It was not customary for us donkeys to have a name.  “Well then we shall name him Juan!”  Patrica exclaimed.  “Yes, Juan Negrin!”  David added.  My master’s daughter grinned.  That was fine with her.  I stood there silently watching it all, feigning disregard, as the outsiders walked off giddily on their way back to civilization.

And so this is the story of how I, a humble donkey from the Huichol mountains of Mexico, was given my name.

Website of the Wixarika Research Center

Website of Patricia Diaz–The Huichol and Pesticides