Sante Fe, the capital of New Mexico, should rank as the quaintest town anywhere. It is indeed a centre of art and culture and is filled with art galleries, museums and nothing else. All buildings here, including the central plaza, have a brown rounded mud finish called adobe (you know where Adobe got its name from). According to town planning rules established long ago, only adobe houses are permitted in the city. The architecture here is a mixture of Pueblo, other American-Indian and Mexican styles. The numerous galleries here sell local artefacts, pottery and paintings. The prices are a bit ooh-aah: even small curios like keychains and such trinkets are about $25.
The sheer quaintness forces you into the galleries and from the innards, hidden behind all the trinkets and paintings, you can hear the welcoming ‘Hello’, mostly from a lady sitting behind a computer. One of the many hundred gallerists there told me that despite all the goodies on sale, there is no profit to be made. “I haven’t made a profit in years.” It could be the high prices and also the huge number of galleries packed into a small area. Richard was in the National Park Service before he quit and settled down in Sante Fe, attracted by its sheer beauty and quaintness. Who wouldn’t? Footfalls at the galleries are low. But I’m sure there are the millionaires who drop by, for near Sante Fe is one of America’s topmost millionaire enclaves. Richard says works are palmed out to local artisans by gallerists and then put up for sale, so money has to be paid up front. A small piece of Mexican pottery, beautifully painted, displayed at the centre of Richard’s gallery, is priced $4,500.
The Bandelier National Park, named after the Swiss-American anthropologist (Adolph Francis Alphonse Bandelier) who did pioneering work on the Pueblo Indians, is set right amidst rugged county. Like every US National Museum or Park, this one is well-managed. The staff or volunteers are mostly retired personnel who do their work with rare passion and attention to detail. You have to park your car at the visitor’s centre and be driven the last 10 miles or so in a bus driven by a fiftyish lady who could put any Indian male driver to shame. Soon as you start on the trail, you can see the caves or cliff dwellings cut into the mountainside, Pueblo Indian settlements, maybe from the Pueblo II era (1150-1350). Pueblo Indian history dates back 7,000 years. The caves were used mostly for cooking, going by the soot-covered roofs. Below can be seen remnants of the Indian settlements. Like at every such tourist centre in the US, there’s a museum and a book and curio shop.
On the way to the Bandelier National Park can be seen a road sign pointing towards the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the world’s biggest scientific lab, where the nuclear bombs that destroyed Japan and won the war for the Allies were developed. No, you can’t take that road to the secretive lab where who knows what evil enterprise is taking shape. That too near where some of the world’s oldest civilisations flourished. The lab was the result of the nationalist Manhattan Project headed by physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who shipped in hundreds of youngsters. They were all put up in New Mexico and then taken to the remote Los Alamos site where they stayed and built the lab. And destroyed everything.
There are many who came to Santa Fe and stayed on, completely bowled by its laid-back quaintness. Perhaps the most famous is the painter Georgia O’Keeffe whose painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 sold for $44 million at Sotheby’s in 2014, making her the most valuable woman painter in the world. Mainly to get away from her unfaithful husband (photographer Alfred Stieglitz, famed for his photographs of his wife), she settled down in the Ghost Ranch near Santa Fe and painted haunting works all her life.
In a clear case of journalistic felony, I didn’t know about her till now, when I came across her gripping profile in The Daily Telegraph, pegged on an O’Keeffe retrospective which opened at the Tate. There is an O’Keeffe museum in Sante Fe, which I didn’t visit. But by that time I was palpitating like a culturally satiated zombie and could not take any more. That’s because I was, in the days before, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. After seeing Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, the Rodin retrospective and a rare Leonardo da Vinci, every other museum seemed redundant.
I imagined I was in a Western while having dinner by the Pecos. I feared a bear would come tearing down, but all was calm. Ecstasy: we saw a duck and her proud family of four.
Delhi-based journalist Binoo K. John is the author, among others, of Entry From Backside Only, a study of Indian English
E-mail your diarist: binoojohn [AT] gmail [DOT] com