New Mexico is an arid, evocative wonderland of creepy stories, vanished peoples and warm, beautiful architecture
Words: VARDHAN KONDVIKAR
Photographs: UNNIKRISHNAN RAVEENDRANATHEN
She squints at me as the frybread sizzles in the pan, eyes almost closed, a face that you can read the weather in. “Hmmm, you’ve got villages just like this back in India, haven’t you?” Surprised, I only nod, and chew down on the frybread, which is like a thick puri, and not terrific. It goes well enough with a bit of honey, but its traditional accompaniment, mutton stew, isn’t available at the Taos pueblo, a village of Tewa-speaking Native Americans, and one of the oldest settlements in the USA.
This is supposed to be big-sky country, but it’s a cold, grey wind that whips through the pueblo (village), making the dogs fluff up their coats and telling people to stay inside their soft-edged adobe houses. And she’s right: it feels like a village anywhere in India, with the smells of woodsmoke and livestock, untidy, lived-in and with clear plans to not change for the next thousand years or so. And it hasn’t changed for even longer than that: local historians believe that this UNESCO-listed site was probably first built in the 2nd century AD, and the current structures are at least from the 14th century.
But this is the USA, the land of the drive-through, super-size, shiny new everything. To find this here is astonishing. Even the city we’ve come from, Santa Fe, feels like a different universe from the rest of the country, like this is the land stripped down to its red-orange bones, ancient and wary and watching you silently. If a coyote starts to howl now, I’m going to need a fresh pair of tighty-whities.
At least this trip to a Native American pueblo has been more successful: the first one we went to, we found what looked like a great parking spot, only to be informed that it’s sacred ceremonial ground, and we know exactly what happens when old burial grounds are disturbed…
But let’s start over, with Santa Fe, which, I believe, was not built on old burial grounds, and feels, well, rather lovely. Alien, yes, with its total lack of skyscrapers and its uniformity of beige adobe structures (it’s the law that all buildings here must ape the look of the original Native pueblos), but with wonderful spots of colour – turquoise jewellery, a sculpture of a donkey, the deep, dangerous-looking red of dried chillies, and above all, the orange that the beige turns into when the sun is low. Strolling along the covered walkways with their wooden viga beams, in the thin, cold mountain air, this feels like a great place to be – clearly prosperous, sort of busily peaceful, a lovely combination of Spanish colonial and Native American touches, completely different from the America we normally see.