Monday, May 15, 2017

shades of mud

Flying to Santa Fe is a pain no matter which one of the two airlines serving its municipal airport you choose. From Zurich, it involves three flights, the last of which is a short hop in a little tin that's rattling and shaking like an ill-tempered wind chime. In the time it takes you to get there, you'd make it to San Francisco and halfway back. It is not a journey to take lightly but one with rewards.

By day, Santa Fe is delightful. The sky is blue, the sun burning, the air is dry and brown the dominant color. At 7000 feet, the town often seems to hover in the translucence of the high desert. Adobe buildings in Pueblo style give an impression of architectural congruence and carefully preserved history. Not all of this is what it seems, though. A marker by an old officers' quarter in the historic center reveals that Pueblo style took off only in the early 20th century when a local authority in these matters decreed that henceforth, no other style would be tolerated. Existing buildings were plastered over to create the mud-façaded ensemble that now dominates New Mexico's tourism marketing.

For me, this works. Walking around town, I was reminded of a visit to New Mexico a good fifteen years ago, when I road-tripped around the southern half of the state, from Albuquerque down to White Sands and back. The highlight of that trip was a walk around Acoma Pueblo, along its dusty lanes, the skyward-pointing ladders that enable access to the homes through holes in their roofs forever out of reach. What jarred at first what the flat drone of our native guide's voice. How had he got the job? At some point – whether prompted by an aggravated question or not I don't remember – he explained that the monotony was on purpose. He wanted to make sure the stories of his forefathers that he had to tell us outsiders as part of the tour would stay in the pueblo. To me, this only added to the magic of the visit.

Thanks to the early local authority with a vision, you don't have to go to a pueblo to get a bit of the pueblo vibe. Santa Fe is all adobe buildings, in more shades of clay than are on my chino shelf. Exposed beams of Ponderosa pines long gone from the surroundings and accents of light blue crack through the mud here and there. Wooden ladders are conspicuously missing, but at least the Eldorado Hotel at one end of town and the Pruma at the other give the impression of impregnability by any other means.

The town sees itself as a destination for refined tourists. On one side of the central plaza, by the old Palace of the Governors, dozens of Native Americans spend their days slumped against the wall, offering necklaces, earrings and bracelets in turquoise and silver to a steady stream of discerning customers. Art galleries, pottery shops, jewelry boutiques and enough museums to fill the entire state's quota three times over give Santa Fe a cultured vibe. Acoustic sets and skillful street musicians pop up at odd hours. This is not the place for rowdy crowds to let their hair down.

Or is it? At night, Santa Fe turns into a different beast. When most tourists are back in their hotels, the hicks come out in force. The streets fill with vehicles of dubious value, pimped primarily for acoustic incontinence. Camaros with roaring oven pipes, ricers whose wheels had slumped to pathologic camber and humping lowriders performed a parade of sensational combustion. I saw a motorcycle spinning its rear wheel as if in a drag race and a Fiesta leaving rubber on an intersection. A Fiesta! What a sad spectacle, violently at odds with the sophistication of the day, but maybe not so surprising after all. Thirty miles from Santa Fe is Los Alamos, reputedly the town with the highest density of PhDs in the US. Around it, however, is New Mexico, one of the poorest states of the US. The behavior of the kids reflects that.

I was at a structural biology conference with an impressive line-up of speakers. Talks ran from right after breakfast to after dinner. There was little time to leave the hotel and none at all for sightseeing. Most conferences have at least an afternoon off to see a bit of the locality. This one was so focused on science, it sometimes felt it was losing itself. Flying out of Santa Fe this morning was thus a bit of a pain. So much was left unseen, it was a shame to leave.