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Globetrotting with Push

With your host,
Raji "Push" Pushparajah

7/10/03 - Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Land of Enchantment began to work its magic on me with a one-hour shuttle ride up from the airport in Albuquerque to the beautiful state capital of Santa Fe. My driver revealed an uncanny ability to negotiate the tortuous, suicidal maniac-infested roads through the piņon-covered hills made famous by the many watercolors of Georgia O'Keeffe, especially considering his alcohol-impaired state. But I and much of my breakfast arrived safely at the historic Santa Fe Plaza, center of social life in the City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi.

My visit was planned to coincide with the Santa Fe Festival, an event dear to locals and tourists alike. Every year, the three cultures that make up the historic tossed salad that is the Santa Fe population -- Native American, Spanish and American -- come together to celebrate their diversity and unity in a series of colorful, and often spectacular, events. Easily the most spectacular is the Burning of Zozobra, a 20-foot-tall effigy of Old Man Gloom.

By paying a small fee, I was able to join the crowd watching the festival committee assemble the effigy on the morning of the event. New Mexicans are well-known for their laid-back, unhurried attitudes, and I was able to see this relaxed approach expressed first-hand in their quaint, ineffective efforts at crowd control. After a few minutes, I found myself jostled to the front, mere inches from the hideously comic visage of Zozobra himself. Taking this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a close-up of Gloom personified, I pulled out my camera. At that exact moment the assembly crew chose to hoist the huge papier-mache head into place -- and the crowd chose to inadvertently push me onto it.

For mercifully brief seconds, I hung upside-down from Zozobra's maw, barely enough time for the contents of my pockets to be dumped into the crowd below, who, caught up in the spirit of festival, were laughing vigorously. The crew then thoughtfully dropped me to the fortunately grass-covered ground, a lucky break my head, upon which I landed, appreciated.

I was not about to let minor abrasions and a sprained neck keep me from the burning itself. I arrived early, when twilight was just falling, yet unfortunately not before a large crowd of people had already gathered. Looking through my field glasses, I noticed a vaguely familiar-looking bluish square in Zozobra's mouth. Only when the ceremonial lighting was well under way did I realize it was my passport. Making my way through the crowd and through the distracted security people, I managed to get almost to Old Man Gloom, who was now aflame, and, in keeping with tradition, moaning loudly and piteously. Just as I realized that I had no way of reaching my now-smoking passport, gravity solved the problem by bringing it, together with the flaming, moaning head, to me.

The burn unit at St. Michael's is underrated, in my opinion. The pine-scented air that wafts in through the windows is as calming as the staff is invigorating. They have been relentlessly cheerful, often laughing out loud, ever since I arrived, and have comforted me with the knowledge that I should be largely healed by the time my replacement passport arrives.

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