Sunday, July 4, 2010

Involuntary Vandals




La Paz is a city that comes alive when the sun begins to set. Human self-preservation has taught the population to lay low during the heat of the day but as they sky begins its alchemy to golden hues the beachfront Malecón springs to life. Artists, vendors, and street performers take their stations as families stroll and the Mexican youth practice courtship encounters. Rollerbladers and bikers of varying skill level keep things interesting. Packs of street dogs dart in and out of the feet, strollers and wheels passing by.

We stop to watch a group of highly flexible teens demonstrate the core strength required for break dancing to “Eye of the Tiger.” Further down the Malecón, a band of youth playing plastic buckets and a make-shift tuba-like device thrilled a growing crowd with surprising talent.

We had about 20 blocks to walk but it took us nearly two hours to make our way back toward our hotel. As we enjoyed the festivities along the route the sky moved through stages of coral to orange and eventually left us to complete our way in the dark.

Since crossing the four-lane main boulevard is taxing in the light of day, I search the median for a place to cross midway before we reach the curve that obscures a view of oncoming traffic. A road crew had been working in the median for days but a section of the orange hazard fencing was removed so we froggered our way across the eastward traffic to the center divider. There we found a newly poured sidewalk – because a 10 foot wide median is a perfectly logical place to encourage foot traffic in Mexico. I tapped the new cement with the toe of my flip-flog. Satisfied that it was well-cured by the La Paz sun, Celia and I began skipping in yellow-brick road fashion, inspired by the glee of being first to use the new path.

Approximately 20 yards down the path with Club El Moro's white façade beaming in the distance, Celia and I simultaneously transitioned from skip to slide into a low-slung crab posture. With our toes and fingers buried deep in wet cement we starred at each other, mouths thrown open by the shock. With every attempt not to further deface public property, we crawled from the cement overtaken by fits of laughter. Amazingly, it seemed that no one witnessed the spectacle. We slipped into the resort complex by a side gate and tip-toed into our room to wash the concrete from our digits and shoes.

In the morning, once again passing along Malecón on our way to the bus station, we reminisced on our wonderful new impressions of La Paz, thankful that we gave her a second chance. Passing by the crime scene of last night’s involuntary vandalism, we giggled in shared appreciation that we too have left our impression on La Paz.

Into the water with wolves

The highlight for many visitors to La Paz is a visit to the legendary Isla Espíritu Santo, a jagged island just off the peninsula replete with innumerable turquoise coves rimmed with white sand beaches. John Steinbeck spent weeks exploring the waters in this area just prior to World War II in a trawler with a scientist friend creating a collection of marine life that formed the basis for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Among the hundreds of species of marine life discovered, captured and preserved was a small fish that spent its entire life with its head up the anus of a larger host fish. (You can’t make this stuff up!)

Yet, bio-diversity not to be outdone by fishy perversity, the abundance of life on and around the island would thrill even the most experienced travelers. On our one-day sojourn, we watched bottlenose dolphins frolic in our wake, a manta ray heft its enormous belly into the air, handled intricately decaled sea snails and vibrant starfish, and observed, from a safe distance, lolling puffer fish and a black and white stripped moray eel. Countless sea birds dotted the skies, rocks and beaches to add a touch of feather to fin. Yet the most compelling reason to venture to this absurdly idyllic island rests at the northern most point, Los Islotes. Draped on the rocks and bobbing in the surrounding sea are the island’s largest permanent residents, a colony of sea lions or sea wolves as Spanish-speakers would have you believe.

We tie our guide boat to an anchorage on the leeward side of the rocky crag jutting up from the seabed below. On our tour there is just Celia, me and one Japanese tourista who will be diving while we snorkel. As we tug on our wetsuits and fins, the lobos marinos bark from the rocks and pop from the water all around us. Carlos, our guide, tells us that we will not be going off to the right of the rocks because the colony is recently blessed with many new pups which are being tightly guarded. He got no argument from me. As Carlos drops into the water, and I prepare Celia to do the same, my mind momentarily evaluates the logic of the situation. There is a reason, I assume, that our esteemed swim mates carry monikers of lion and wolf. Afterall, they are not Sea Dogs or Sea Bunnies, now, are they? But with a splash my one and only child is bobbing just a few yards from a curious whiskered snout so I have little choice but to join her.

I have to confess that while the schools of tropical fish, rock walls teaming with life and silvery towers of itty-bitty chum were something to behold, it was all scrim for larger thrill of a silky brown torpedo gliding by you just feet from your chest. Black inky eyes playfully scanned my floating form with curiosity that seems equivalent to my own. I was so enraptured by the novelty of the experience that all rational fear vanished, replaced instead by surges of adrenaline triggered by closer and closer near-contact with the lobos. Even with teeth chattering and toes blue as the water, Celia and came back aboard the boat with wide-eyed perma-grins on our mask-lined faces.

Keeping the Peace in La Paz

You may recall a solemn vow made in a blog post a couple years back in which I swore to never again leave the easy-breezy green paradise for the allure of La Paz. Burned once, literally, by the blazing inferno by the sea, I had all but written off one of Baja’s most popular tourist destinations. However, since we became nomads displaced from Casa Bentley by a wedding party, we dared to venture back into the shades of hell on the promise of an air-conditioned room, pool and three days of water sports. I fully expected the trip to present some adventure – pleasant or otherwise – but I would not have expected that we’d leave La Paz having come to love the town.

Arriving at the surprisingly lush and beautifully appointed Club El Moro at the far end of La Paz’s famed Malecón promenade, the desk clerk abashedly apologized for the cool temperatures. Indeed, the ocean breeze which kept the palm frond canopy in constant sway was near perfection. It took Celia only a moment to appraise the azure blue waters of the figur eight shaped pool which could be transversed by a rope and plank bridge. My eyes spanned beyond the pool to the cabana bar. For a whopping $90 a night, this would do nicely.

Our first night in town we ventured out, as tourists do, for Chinese food. Tipped off by Bob, we chirped “Donde?” until we found ourselves ordering Pollo al Limon and Arroz Fritas in a second story corner restaurant that afforded us an excellent vantage point for people watching. Since we are well past tourist season, the passersby were largely locals – and I do mean largely. Cultural norms aside, aye carumba, lay off the carbs! I decide to forego the rice and stick with the chicken for dinner.

We decided to make it an early night since we’d need to wake at the ungodly hour of 7:00 am for the next leg of our adventure. I drifted off to sleep with a silent prayer to the universe to keep the breezes blowing.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The dance that never was


Tonight I learned that my daughter is a lousy wingman.

Just as we were settling down into our nightly routine the unthinkable happened. The internet connection went dead. In a town where water and electricity service are a crap shoot, I should be prepared for the eventuality of not being able to access iTunes but it still stings. But, as the fates would have it, just as I began my rant of disappointment, the unmistakable um-pa-pa of a ranchero band came wafting over the neighborhood. It’s too-loud-music night in the town square!

This is one of my favorite aspects of Todos Santos summers. At dark, the locals set out plastic Tecate sponsored patio chairs all around El Centro plaza for several hours of rousing accordion-laden, trumpet punctuated ranchero music. For 15 pesos you can buy an ice cold can of Tecate beer and sit among the crowd for some prime, grade-A anthropological study.

Spurred by our evaporated web ethers and lacking the Hispanic DNA snip that governs tardiness, Celia and I were among the first to arrive at the party. The warm up band had only gathered a few dozen people when we arrived. I shelled out just over $1 for a beer and took a seat midway up the plaza – close enough to see the band but far enough to return home with fully functioning ear drums. The band was a ubiquitous collection of semi-western characters. It is hard to say exactly how many men were involved because throughout the concert, individual players would wander on and off the stage at random. In fact, at one point, I searched the stage at length trying to find the vocalist – whom I could hear singing but could not locate– among the two guitarist, one base player, drums, and two questionably employed back-up fellows. I found him standing to the far right of the stage singing with his back to the meager crowd. I got the feeling that the warm-up act is really more of a public practice session. But soon, a posse of blue-suited Mariachi players filed in along the side street in a clear indication that things were about to heat up.

Celia joined me on the bench and we engaged in exquisite people watching. Check out the girls in their best hoochie-mama garb! Do you think those are real snake skin boots? Watch the guy in red – he’s dying to dance with someone. Look mama, a midget! (Not kidding – I was quick to correct her with the proper term – enano– after all, this is Mexico.) We were having a great time sitting out in the warn night air surrounded by music, the full moon bathing the square in pale blue light amidst a swelling assembly of Todos Santos’ finest. The police came out in force – not to enforce anything but to mingle and the cowboys were arriving in their best pressed denim, Saturday night shirts and high-polished boots.

A man carrying two black plastic bags approached the bench to our left much to the glee of his compadres who eagerly snatched cold beers from the stash. The beer mule perched himself on the edge of the bench and proceeded to burn a stare across my profile from my left temple to my ankles. So subtle was this assessment that Celia tugged on my arm and whispered, “Why is that guy staring at us?”

“I think he’s drunk,” I said and she giggled but without taking her eyes off of him.

“Look Celia, someone is going to dance with the guy in red!” she said as the first couple of the night took to the dance floor. They twirled around in a countrified waltz mandated by the ¾ beat flowing from the grandstand.

I could feel the heat of El Burro’s gaze on me so I turned as casually as one can while being stared at and smiled. He reached in to the plastic beer trove and extended a can with a smooth-as-silk cinnamon-colored arm. Hmmm. El burro is actually quite handsome, I thought, and oh so young. I gave a quick glance toward Celia and then, never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I stood up to accept the brew. I verified with a quick, “¿Verdad?” and then took the can with a “Gracias. Tu eres muy amable.”

As I turned and took the 4 steps back to my home bench, I was struck by Celia’s expression. It was a combination of shock and suspicion that can be perfectly summed up in the “What you talking about, Willis” tone of the now-late Gary Coleman.

“Did he give you that?!” she asked incredulous.

“Sure. Nice of him, don’t you think?” I said taking my seat and trying to enjoy a sip despite the strings attached which I could plainly feel tugging at the beverage. My curiosity was taking hold of me as I wondered how this might play out.

The guy in red found another dance victim and I began to worry that I might also be a target. As the sole Gringa over the legal age present, I was highly conspicuous. I’d nodded do many silent greetings since arriving at the plaza that my neck was getting stiff. I was banking on the fact that the locals, though exceedingly gracious and kind, tend to avoid us outside of vendor/buyer relations. But, just in case I turned to Celia and said, “If I get asked to dance, you need to stay here with my purse, okay?”

The look on her face was priceless! I couldn’t tell if she found the thought of someone asking me to dance impossible or if she was merely mortified that her mother might attempt to dance like the gente in front of the actual gente. I guess she assumed that it was in fact impossible because she decided to shrug off the demand with a chuckle and a roll of her eyes that clearly said, “Whatever, mama.”

Just then a waft of cigarette smoke reached us and Celia made a face that only a sub-20-year-old Californian who has never seen a “smoking section” would dare to make in the presence a largely nicotine-dependent population. I registered my shared distaste for the smoke but I told her to drop the face.

“But he’s smoking!” she said as if he’d just defecated on the neighboring bench.

“We’ll then I guess he can’t be my new boyfriend,” I said winking at her.

“Uhhhh, Mama,….” She said eyes growing wide and jabbing her pointer finger into my ribs.
I turned my head to find the man hovering above me. He leaned in and it was readily evident that these were not the first bags of beer tonight. He offered me a cigarette and I told him I don’t smoke. He launched into rapid fire sequence of indiscernible syllables. I would like to blame the loud music but I doubt I would have understood him if he were sober and we were in perfect silence. Once again, I had managed to give someone the impression that I actually speak Spanish. I tried twice to decipher his line but I had to fall back on “I’m sorry, I don’t understand but, hi, my name is Jamie.” I’m afraid to say this is a phrase in my repertoire that never gathers dust. I think he also had a name but I didn’t catch it. I tossed out another “No entiendo” when I gave up trying to figure out his thickly slurred Spanish come-on.

Mercifully, he broke it down for me into one word, “Bailar?”

I have to say that I was feeling unusually in the mood for a random adventure exactly like this one tonight and I figured, what the hell! When is the next time I will get to dance to a Mexican band with a 25-year-old drunken ranch hand? My only real concern was that he’d be too drunk to dance. I took a second to mull it over debating the likelihood that he might drop me prone on the bricks of the zocolo – and not in a good way. His face was so close to mine – I assume because he was listening for an answer – that I felt compelled to answer quickly. Feeling brazen I smiled and accepted a date for the next song. Smiling and walking a nearly straight line, he retreated to his bench.

Before I could even begin to regret my impulsiveness, Celia dug her nails into my arm and let out a terse “I want to go home. Now. I want to go home and read my book.” She was on her feet and five paces away before I absorbed her earnestness. I stood up, shouted a “Lo siento” to my jilted admirer and chased after my daughter who was now at the far end of the square.

“What is up with you?” I asked as we rounded the corner of the church headed toward home.

“He was drunk and smoking!” she said, as if that explained everything.

“Yah – they were all drunk and smoking,” I said. “Now you won’t get to see me dance in front of all those people. Don’t you see the comedic value in that?”

Checking over her shoulder to make sure that the drunken, smoking letch was not fast on our heels, she pondered my question, “It would have been a good story for my friends.” But then reconsidering, she said, “But, no, he was drunk and he smokes – I would never dance with someone who is drunk and smokes.”

Laughing at the self-imposed criteria that would greatly diminish Celia’s dating pool, I wondered if I could get that in writing.

“You are no fun!” I said as we stepped inside the gates of Casa Bentley. Celia let out a sigh of relief when I threw the deadbolt into its metal sleeve.

“And you are crazy,” she retorted wagging an accusatory index finger at me.

Maybe I am crazy, I think, listening to the pulsing music bounce off the walls around the square such that it seemed to come from all directions at once. I'll chalk it up to the full moon. No doubt, I will have to thank Celia tomorrow for pulling the rip cord on my insane leap into thin air. But tonight, I will lie here in bed listening to the throbbing tuba up the hill and lament the dance that never was.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Bedtime

Of all the many enjoyable aspects of our time in Todos Santos, my favorite hours are spent in bed. It’s no secret that I like my sleep and I aspire to obtaining as much as possible. But here in Mexico, my time committed to the prone position is sweeter than usual.

Allowing my natural clock take over, Celia and I quickly adjust from the school/work rigor of rising at 7 AM and bedding down at 8:00 for Celia and 10:00 for me. We extend our days into the night, later and later, until we are at risk of going to bed tomorrow. But we make up the hours of sleep by remaining borrowed into our cotton haven until 10 AM or later. My personal best this summer was a start of the day at 10:45.

Sleep is only one delicious component of our quality time in bed. Celia and I share one of the two queens in the Mango suite. Late at night we snuggle up and chat. Celia tells me about the dramas of 2nd grade. We rehash events of the day and plan for tomorrow. Sometimes we practice Spanish – meaning I practice Spanish and Celia gives into fits of laughter.

Last night we were practicing the ever elusive “Have you done X….” verb form. I’m working through various uses: “Have you visited Todos Santos?” “Have you eaten at Miguel’s?” and so on. When I hit the inevitable bump of an irregular verb, Celia laughs with gusto the produces the correct – absolutely unpredictable – verb. Ug! I’ll never learn this language. But now Celia was on a giggling jag so I decided to feed it with a play on the few words I know. I say “Has tomado tomato?” Meaning “Have you drunk tomato?” Okay, technically tomato is tomate but this question kept Celia laughing for 20 minutes until she finally fell asleep.

In the real world I hate mornings. They come too soon and mandate constant motion to get everyone fed and off to their respective occupations. But here in our cama de reina mornings come gently. The Mango room fills with light diffused through the dense canopy of fruit trees. Just above the constant rush of the fountain we can hear birds and the distant thump of Mexican music but the sounds combine to form a lulling soundtrack that enables marathon sleep patterns.

As we ease into consciousness, Celia and I begin a sort of a dance. First she will roll up against me and put her arm around my waste. I wake just enough to appreciate how sweet the moment is. Then- endowed with a ridiculously sensitive thermostat passed down through my DNA, Celia quickly gets too hot and rolls away. In time, I will roll over and gather her little body up into mine. With my face nuzzled in her neck, I’ll drift off until heat again breaks our embrace. We are like to magnets with opposite polarity trying to cuddle.

When we finally open our eyes we lie in bed staring at the intricate pattern of water stains on the wood ceiling above. In our first week we identified all the obvious images: a mule head, a parrot, etc… We toss off the blankets and cuddle without threat of overheating. Hunger or bathroom necessities eventually coax us into the erect world.

As my feet hit the floor I ask, “What do you want to do for lunch (since it is nearly 11:00)?” Ahhhhh – good morning.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Viaje a Valle Perdido - Part 2 Pueblos Pequenas

Leaving the ranchland, I decided to use the time we had traversing the dusty ruts to get to know Fernando better. Beatrice had tipped me off that Fernando comes from a family of high esteem in this region. I cast out my line for more information but Fernando was a pillar of modesty. The closest I got to the scoop was an unassuming, “My grandfather was involved in the revolution.”

Instead we discuss the few years he spent living in San Diego and Newport Beach which explained his near-perfect English. As the ruggedly handsome Fernando attentively maneuvered around boulders, across cattle crates and through dense scrub accented by vibrant white Plumeria, he was far more comfortable discussing the native vegetation. He’s relationship with the area unfolded like a romance novel. With amorous revelry he tells me about the months he spent exploring the Isla Espiritu Santo off the La Paz coast, finding ancient human remains and cave paintings. He bought a little home in El Gallina (El Rosario) because he feels at home in the tiny pueblo. Somewhere, high in the Sierra Laguna range he has built a little cabin. It takes nine hours by mule to reach it but Fernando’s description of this mountain paradise has me wanting to sign up for the trip. I was greatly enjoying his love story so I made a mental note to Google my way to answers about his family when I got home.

[Here is what Goggle had to offer (in Spanish, mind you, so I can't be ceratin that I have it all right). Fernando’s grandfather is the legendary General Felix Ortega Aguilar who in 1913 opposed the dictatorial government of Victoriano Huerta. To understand the respect that people of this region have for Ortega you need a crash course in turn of the century Mexican Politics. President Porfirio Diaz was ambitiously flirting with foreign investors, bringing industry – especially mining – to the country, and throwing the covers clean off his quiet, sleepy homeland. It was a rude awakening for the small population of Baja California, which experienced rapid growth and opportunity, rife with growing pains. Diaz divided the peninsula in two creating the northern (norte) and southern (sur) Baja states. In this climate of heavy-handed government, the governor of Baja Sur, Francisco I. Madero, was overthrown by our villain, Victoriano Huerta. Groups of citizen began to organize to oust the ouster and they turned to the well known, intelligent Felix Ortega – a local boy turned Mexico City-educated lawyer – to lead the armed rebellion. Ortega fought for more than a year, defeating the federal troops and returned victorious to the city of La Paz, where he received the appointment of Chief of Military Operations. As the revolution subsided, displaced ranchers who had seen their lands confiscated were restored ownership. In the process, our hero was also endowed with numerous expanses of property near La Paz and in the Sierra Laguna Mountains. Just how expansive, I can’t seem to grasp and Fernando is not talking.]

Our afternoon consisted of visits to two ideallic towns settled high in the mountains, San Antonio and El Triunfo. Both tiny towns were born of mining boom in the mid 1800 and many residents have Anglo surnames to tie them to the American and European mining companies that prospered here. Cobbled stone streets and lovely old adobe homes perched at all angles on the mountainous slopes, awash with the pale pastel colors that once coated all homes in this area – before dairy companies and quicky marts introduced the neon color scheme that has raised the intensity of palates through Mexico. Imagine if every Starbucks in America where painted like a Tennessee Titan’s game jersey –now you’ve got the idea.

As we rolled past San Antonio’s plaza two local equine residents came clopping our way – as if two young lovers out for a stroll. The lovely blonde horse strolled nonchalantly into the plaza, passing the gazebo and sipping from the fountain. Her dark and brooding suitor stood high on the will watching her ready to canter to her defense if need be. I looked around to see if any of the two-legged San Antonians would react but no one so much as noticed the horseplay. Ah, to be a horse in San Antonio!

El Triunfo can be seen for miles away by its distinctive defunct red brick smoke stack (designed by Gustav Eiffel!) towering 35 meters above the rocky soil. I tried to imagine when El Triunfo was home to more than 10,000 miners and the smoke rose continuously from the stacks of the Progresso Mining Company smelters but it was hard to picture. The mines shut down in 1926 sending most residents off to seek other opportunities.Today the town is home to just a few hundred people and one very unique attraction.

In its heyday the town was a cultural center, where famous Chilean music prodigy, Francisca Mendoza, taught and performed. A well maintained hacienda is still home to the El Triunfo Music Museum which exhibits pianos from all over the world. Getting out of the Nissan to explore the museum, Fernando mentioned that his Grandfather’s piano is among those on display. Now we are getting somewhere, I thought! As Celia and I milled about, Fernando walked with purpose from room to room trying to locate his family heirloom but it was nowhere to be found. He spoke with the sluggish curator who assured him that General Ortega’s piano is “at the shop.” Fernando was not buying it and he was quietly agitated when we climbed back in the truck.

On the way out of town children lined the road holding out silver paint buckets brimming with red fruit. “Pitayyyyyyya!” they shouted. Snaking back up and over the mountain, I catch a glimpse of El Triunfo down below and Baja’s own Eiffel Tower lit like a burgundy spire rising from the green village canopy. I thought to myself, it may be Gustav’s best work.

Back in Todos Santos, Fernando asked if there is anything else we’d like to do. “I’d like to see some horses,” said Celia, who had been silently sitting in the back of the car for miles. Veering to the left Fernando began to drive through the town’s western “suburb.” As we rounded the road to La Poza, a well known hotel and beach access, he said, “I live there in the little cabin below the big house.” The small, traditional adobe cabin is exactly what I would have expected of Fernando, now having spent time with him. Solid, earthy, without a hint of pretense, yet positioned on the same ocean -view hillside as the million-dollar mushroom homes that pop up year after year.

[It turns out that he owns the cabin, the big house, and the large lot around them.]

We drove through the fertile green valley that lies in the lowest portion of Todos Santos where Fernando’s horse is kept by the farmer. We search every corner of the farm passing palms, peppers, and mangos but no horse. Again, Fernando quietly stews. What a day he’s had! While chauffeuring two gringas all across the peninsula he learned of a friend’s death, the loss of a great family heirloom and now finds his horse missing. I feel petty for my camera woes.

Back at Bob’s, I offer Fernando a cold beer which we drink under the hule tree by the pool. Finishing his beer he excuses himself saying, “I have to go see about my horse,” no euphemism intended.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Viaje a Valle Perdido - Part 1


Believe it or not, I finally hit the wall on time spent sipping margaritas at the pool. Hungry for adventure and a glimpse of the vida real, I asked Fernando (more on Fernando another time) to be our guide on a couple day trips across the region. He graciously accepted.

On a bright but cool Thursday morning we woke to our alarm – how else is a girl to wake up before 9 AM? We headed out of town toward La Paz on the highway of eternal construction. After years of construction the work has finally drawn near to Todos Santos, painting a wide, four-lane swath of asphalt across the desert floor. The speed of progress is immediately evident as vehicles hurl past us in a blur darting around semi-trailers. The prospect of exercising the power to pass traffic without facing a head-on collision is almost too much for the local drivers. They are drunk with the right of way.

All along the highway there stretch out miles of homogenous life growing from the red earth: cactus, trees, bushes, the occasional highway shrine to a lost motorist and white mile markers. The southern view is distinguished from the northern landscape only by the gray heights of the Sierra Laguna Mountains looming in the distance.

Suddenly Fernando braked and veered right off the highway onto a dirt lane etched through dense desert growth. We quickly come up on a mother cow and her 3-4 day old calf. They plodded ahead of us for a while, the calf turning to stare at us more than once with its inky brown eyes. I grabbed my camera to snap a shot. In doing so I accidently hit the power button, lens cap still on. Normally this is not a problem but my “new” refurbished camera was clearly sent to me to test my willingness to “let it go.” It ceremoniously reports with a proud beep-beep that a “zoom error” has ended all hope of me taking any more pictures today. Although I wanted to let out of few beep-beeps of my own, I didn’t think a photographic meltdown in front of Fernando was appropriate – we’d only just met. Instead, I engage in an all day battle between good and camera – hitting the power every 15 minutes or so trying to dislodge the jammed lens. Beep-beep it chided incessantly.

In the meanwhile, Fernando treated us to an amazing day of historical, cultural, and botanical education illustrated by – (Murphy’s Law in action) – wildly picturesque locations.

First we ventured down the dirt path that snaked through miles of ranchland covered with armies of cactus – several kinds, I now understand – mesquite, beautiful golden trees I cannot name with twisted elegant branches that shine in the sun, and even grand oaks native to only this part of Baja. Every few kilometers a cow would be tucked between the spiky trunks of this dry but shady habitat. Fernando explained that this time of year – the last month of the long dry season – the livestock have gone since December with very little available water. Some ranchers will have to round up their heard from among these dense tangles of desert forest to sustain them. If you, like me, have a vision of cowboys riding at full canter, lassos whirling over head chasing down cattle, you’ll need to recalibrate. As I stare out the window at the snarl of passing landscape dotted by the occasional off-road cow, I image the Baja caballeros job is more like a Blackwater special ops assignment. What do they do – low crawl to the animal and drag it out?

We pull up to our first ranch home of Valle de Perdido – The Lost Valley. It is hard to describe theses structures as the hovels that they are by American standards once you gain respect for the caballero life. Rather, the earthen walls seem like a milagro of engineering. The mish-mash of fencing and shade structures are an impressive display of natural resource utilization. Even more impressive is the age of many of the houses, dating back into the 1800s. They were built of clay-baked bricks formed from the local soil, covered in lath striped from endemic wood, plastered and capped off with a palm-frond roof. Most have a large veranda to cast a deep shade on the activities of the day including al fresco meal preparation, cow hide tanning, and cheese making from the ranch’s own goats or cows. In the deep shade of this first ranch home I can vaguely see the Rancher’s wife at work. Chickens, cows, and one ominous looking bull roamed freely around the house – a tawny cow lounging just feet from the veranda under a shade tree.

Up ahead is a “village” of four remaining homes which lie like acorns under the expansive branches of ancient oaks. The four homes are situated in a square – two in front and two in back. But only two of the homes look inhabited. One, it turns out, was recently abandoned. Fernando tells us that he has known the old man that lived in the abandoned house for years. We step closer to the main house to see that all the man’s belongings are still in the home – yet more history lost to this valley.

Trying to adjust my eyes from the bright sun I step into the doorway and am astonished by what I see. Wasp squatters have taken over the home. From every surface a honeycomb dangles – rafters, furniture, window sills. Then, for the first time, I see the squatters themselves –everywhere. I am utterly enraptured in this scene when Fernando breaks my attention with an ardent suggestion that we move on. “They will attack,” he said matter-of-factly. Regaining a semblance of maternal instinct I take Celia’s hand and lead her away from the house-hive.

Nearby there is a pen corralling about two-dozen goats. Among them, to our surprise are two adorable puppies – each about 2 months old. The puppies were sniffing about the pen looking very much like their bearded companions. Fernando explained that the dogs are raised from birth by the mother goats so that when they are sent out to graze after the rains come, the dogs will protect their brethren. True to their training the puppies, seeing us, began to bark (without a twinge of goat-accent, I might add.)

[By the way, at this point I got physical with my camera. Not so gently pounding the frozen lens on my thigh…beep-beep… twisting the lens back and forth… beep-beep. If I didn’t fear death from a million wasp stings I might have screamed in frustration.]

At the home caddy-corner to the house-hive three women had gathered on the front porch – no doubt as interested in the little blond girl and crazy redhead muttering at her camera as we are in the village. Fernando speaks with them for a moment. They confirm that the old man had passed away. He thanks them for their time and we move on.

Our next destination we are told is a village called El Gallina (Although I am a little confused because the web tells me it is El Rosario) which we enter by dipping into a river bed lined with green palms. Three very happy cows wade in the hoof deep water cooling off. Fernando owned a home in El Gallina until a hurricane toppled it some years back. The village is a collection of about 20 families, a church, an El Centro (city center) with a gazebo, a school, and a medical clinic. It is quiet except for the children playing in the school yard across the way. There is no traffic. We stop and visit with another friend of Fernando’s – a shirtless elder, sitting in the shade of a palapa. He greets us kindly and shares with us a piece of handiwork – a smooth, red clay bowl topped with a woven palm basket rim. It is an impressive piece given neither potter’s wheel nor kiln. As Fernando catches up on the gossip in town, I mentally take inventory of the 30-odd photos that I would take if the %#&@ camera would just focus. Focus dammit!

But it turns out that I hadn’t seen anything yet. We wound up a dirt road past a man standing in the back of his truck bed pushing approximately one ton of residential waste into a roadside ravine. He has the sense to look ashamed while we pass but then goes right back to the task. Just ahead we pull into the shaded lot of the La Paz Cactus Sanctuary, a massive reserve featuring a half-mile marked pathway through the sort of cactus forests we had been seeing since we exited the highway. A very eager guide, Demetrio, greeted us at the entrance. Although I was interested in the reserve, my attention was caught by the bright colors and unusual structures in the cemetario next door. Seeing my interest Demetrio said in Spanish, let’s start with the cemetery. I doubt that his role as botany guide includes this diversion but I wasn’t arguing.

The two men walked quickly past the multi-colored tumbas which are common today. Some are stacked 4 feet high with stone crosses etched with the requisite mortal statistics. Others are merely a pile of rocks marked (or not) with a hand written cross. Trying to take all this in and keep up with the men, I then see why we are in hurry to get to the back of the cemetery. Beyond the candy-colored monuments are larger, grander tombs – tumbas – from the regions hay-day in the mid 1800s. Although there are no names or dates on the massive tombs – some more than 8 feet tall – you can still make out telling details. One is clearly the tomb of a wealthy Chinaman – embellished with unmistakable Chinese patterns in the stonework. Others mirror the European design of the day. Seeing these tumbas is bearing witness to the silver and gold that formed these towns and made many families wealthy to this day.

We hit the cactus sanctuary at the peak of mid-day sun. Even in the lattice work of shade provided by the towering plants, it was hot. The flies were all too interested in our sweating limbs. I could see that a botanical tour at this point might not go over well with my withering 7-year-old. Little did we know that Demetrio had treats in store for us. With all the gusto of a guide who hasn’t seen a tourist in weeks (quite possible) our leader brandished a 10 foot long stick with a sharp knife on the end and headed off down the path marked by white painted rocks. We first approach the solid giant of Baja cactus – the cardon. The specimen we stood before was easily 20 feet high and estimated at 500 years old – one of the oldest known specimens in the area. We learn how the ribbing of the cactus body casts shadows across the plant’s epidermis giving it constant relief from the sun’s harsh rays at all angles. I imagine a new design for the Baja home - I’ll call it The Accordion!

Next we visit the cardon’s smaller but still skyward neighbor known as the Pitaya dulce. The guide uses his lengthy scepter to cut and skewer the brilliant red fruit that cling to the top of the plants up-stretched arms. These little thorny balls would naturally deflect the interest of gringos like us. First- they are nearly 10 feet off the ground. Second they are attached to a cactus and third, they are covered with spikes. But he knocks off the spikes with ease, tears the outer skin and reveals the succulent fruit inside. He juts the vibrant red flesh dotted with silken black seeds toward us and says “test. You test!” So I did.

Taking bits of the plum- sized fruit in my fingers I test the cool, moist, slightly slimy center (better I die than Celia, I think). At once, Celia sees my surprise pleasure and she opens her mouth like a baby bird. I scoop out another bit and plop it into her mouth which quickly turns up in a big smile. Truly – this pitaya stuff is amazing! The closest thing I can liken it to is a kiwi or dragon fruit which I've only foundi n Viet Nam [Note: after a quick google search I learn that dragon fruit actually IS pitaya!] but is it sweeter than both. Its high water content instantly refreshes us and we turn our eyes upward for more. As luck would have it there is also a blanca pitaya and we soon get to test its equally delicious fruit. Moving on with this cactus smorgasbord we sample the Cardon Barborn – a cactus giant that produces golden puff-balls of pure joy. Inside seed packets that look like the Tribbles that invaded the Spaceship Enterprise, there resides yet another delight perdido.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Deep-freeze Chill

I’m happy. It’s nearly impossible to explain just how much or why. It’s a virtual onion peeling process of bliss. Am I happy because I am perched in a lush mango grove being serenaded by the fountain’s impersonation of a summer rain shower? Maybe it is the two glasses of margarita that evaporated poolside while I read the sensual escapades of Lupe and Salvador Villasenor in “Thirteen Senses.” There’s a good chance that ABBA’s Mama Mia soundtrack is contributing positively. Most certainly the fact that Celia has abscond with a good friend for the afternoon while I experience this euphoria is a factor. So here I sit – ABBA’s SOS in my ears, sun-kissed skin all aglow, fingers on my keyboard - wondering what mood-altering agent of this day can I smuggle home with me. I have mangos, tequila, literature, ABBA, and play dates at home in San Diego. Could it be that the things I have at home (teetering piles attention-begging paperwork, eternal rennovation projects, a calendar of social engagements, an overdue oil change, meals to prepare, fleas to eradicate, calls to return – in short, responsibilities) inhibit this deep-freeze chill? Yo pienso.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Hoedown Throwdown

If you are at all versed in the lives of pre-tweens, you are acquainted with Miley Cyrus and her alter ego, Hannah Montana. In her recent major motion picture, which I was blessed to see on opening day, there is a feel-good dance number that looks something like the electric slide on crack. It’s a hip-hop spiced line dance delivered at the clip of a semi-automatic weapon. Knowing this in advance, I really should have been more leery when Celia suggested that we spend the evening learning to do the dance via YouTube tutorial (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6fRiT05TWwE).

75 minutes later…Celia is face down in the bed sobbing. My pouring a tequila elixir to sooth my frayed nerves. Let me break it down, step by step to show you how we got here.

To begin, position yourself within inches of each other to both stare into the 17-inch monitor on which a hip-hop choreographer and a spunky Miley Cyrus demonstrate their moves. Attempt the first move combination known as “Pop-it/Lock-it/Poka-dot-it”. Do this in such a way that you try to understand the move while explaining the inverse orientation of the people on the screen – thus we must do the opposite, and remain within touching distance of the pause button.

Repeat three times. No, with the other right foot. To your other right – remember, do the opposite.

Next, beam with pride as you master the “countrify-it” move with thumbs in your belt loops and heels tapping on the floor. Celia gets it easily. This isn’t so bad.

The first sign of trouble comes with a three part moved called “hip-hop-it” immediately followed by an impossible “Hawk-in-the-sky” step that involves Egyptian-esque arms and a flirty little kick. In six beats we are supposed to accomplish something like 15 motor skills. And each of these must be performed in the opposite direction as our rhythm-endowed instructors.

Pause. Rewind. Play. Pause. Rewind. Play. Pause. Rewind. Play. Pause. Rewind. Play.

"But I can’t remember which foot to start with,” Celia whines with an exaggerated frown on her face. “It’s tooooooo haaaaard. Is it like this? Wait. No. Like this. Hold on… hip….hop…no, wait. Can you back it up?"

“Celia, try just watching for a minute. See? You can do that,” I say feeling my neck tightening with each mini-scowl she emits. “If you are too tired, let’s not do this now. It is supposed to be fun."

"I’m noooooot tired. I just can’t dooooooo it” she scratches out like a rusty old screen door.

Then I conceive my very own stellar move! I’ll put the computer in front of the large windows. It’s dark outside so the instructors are miraculous visible and transposed.

“Look Celia! Now stand here and watch in the window. Just do what they do – exactly like they do,” I say feeling superior to MacGyver and Arthur Murry. With the help of reflective light we conquer “hip-hop -it” and “hawk-in-the-sky” and breeze through “side-to-side.” Watch out Paula Abdul.

A bi-directional kick move proves less “jump-to–the-left” than “convulse-to–and-fro” but we get past it with just a few whimpers and another two dozen rewind maneuvers. By this point I’ve taken to a chair next to the computer to execute the non-stop rewinding. The harder the moves become the more Celia is tempted to look at the monitor directly sending each step in the wrong direction. I in-turn am tempted to remind her to look at the window. Tension is mounting.

“Zig-zag-touch”, a move clearly designed for us dance-challenged, gives us a moment of victorious revelry but it is short lived. “Cross-the-floor” followed by “Shuffle-in-diagonal” strains my last nerve. Why the hell is it on the diagonal? They know that millions of 6-12 year old girls are going to try this – what the hell? Celia is nearly in tears as I tell her too curtly, “Stop looking at the monitor! Look in the window. See? Try the “hit-the-Drum” move. That looks easy. No – right hand with the left foot. That’s not your left foot. Watch me.”

Here’s a step to avoid when in this situation: Right about this time, you may be tempted to demonstrate the “180-twist”. I recommend you stay seated. Eyes darting from monitor to window, Celia attempts the swivel-hopping move in utter confusion. Helpfully, I get up and demonstrate.

“But that iiiiiis what I am doing!” she moans in exasperation.

“No, you did this (demonstration of tornado). I did this (correct procedure)” I bark. Yes, I’m barking now.

“That is not what I did!” Celia counters with her own take on the previous five minutes of equally mangled dance steps. We are deep in our “Yes you did, no I didn’t” debate when I threaten to turn off the computer inciting the first tears to form.

“Let’s just watch them finish the dance” I snap.

“Okay” Celia whimpers.

A “zig-zag-touch,” “lean-it-left,” “clap-three-times,” “shake-it-out,” and “Throw-it-all-together” later the dance is finally complete. Just 3 minutes and 19 seconds of dance instruction has cost us more than an hour and instigated a throwdown of our own.

Disgruntled Celia breaks into tears over my “tone”. I make her feel bad when I tell her she’s using the wrong feet and other muffled accusations rise from snotty sobs. She cries. I stew (in tequila). Miley smiles incessantly, frozen in the throes of “hip-hop-it”.

Celia has fallen asleep and the Disney-inspired disaster is over. Whether she picks up with “Zig-zag-touch” tomorrow is between Celia and YouTube. I’m sitting the next one out.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Buenas Tardes

In Todos Santos there are two major forms of mass communication: small cars with large PA systems blaring politically rousing rhetoric which, as best as I can tell, use the words “manana “and “mejor” profusely and vibrant, hand-painted murals. All along the major avenue through town the cinderblock walls are covered with advertisements and the occasional political message. Not unlike our own 30-second spots, these acrylic public service announcements go up on a moment’s notice and disappear just a quickly beneath yet another colorful display.

Yesterday I snapped a shot of a worker penciling in outlines for new, brightly painted yellow quadrant of the main wall. He caught me taking the picture and in the deep mortification that comes with being caught and unable to explain your behavior adequately, I sauntered off too afraid to circle back around until today. The yellow field is now home to a crisp campaign promotion for Victor Castro a candidate for Diputado Federal of Distrito II. I don’t know Senor Castro but if I had to vote today, he’d get my vote.

The evening was so beautiful and cool that I decided on a whim to march past the murals to visit Miguel’s - a favorite among local restaurants. I elected to sit at the street-side bar and was delighted to see mi favorito baristo in all of Todos Santos still working there. Pablo taught me how to make the perfect margarita and no one does it better. I ordered a margarita and he engaged me in lively conversation as is his professional duty. I struggled a bit to find infrequently used words like “piscina” and “propidad” but was quite pleased with my Spanish throughout the exchange. I am finally able to listen without seizing up in fear that I won’t understand and feel foolish. Mid way through the high octane beverage Pablo asked in Spanish, “You have a little girl who draws pretty pictures, no?” Si! I beamed. And he produced a picture that Celia had made the year before of a perfect Pablo-made margarita. I don’t know if I was moved by the gesture or the monster pour of tequila but I was moved.

Humming with the energy of distilled agave, I wandered back through town toward the town square to await the sunset view. I was a bit early and heard sounds coming from the church so I walked into the cool, damp shade of the outer lobby – I know there is a good Catholic term for it but I can’t remember it. I saw that there are about 30 women in the church reciting prayers. I decide to slink into the back pew and check it out. Without a thought, I genuflected when entering the pew and watched my hand perform the sign of the cross before my chest. Wow! Now that is muscle memory!

I was trying hard to understand what they were saying but I was distracted by the building itself. It is more simple than any catholic church I had ever been in. Although there is a stained glass window over the alter, there is little other adornment. Then I notice that there are no prayer books or song books in the pews. Could it be that the population is not literate enough to warrant them? My attention is drawn back to the small congregation when they suddenly take to their feet, break in to song, and progress out of their pews headed straight for me! The procession of ladies, each carrying a sprig of purple flowers and singing out in reverent unison, crept up the outer aisles of the sanctuary. I clutched my bag ready to sprint from the coven. But at the break in the pews at the center of the church, the women leading the queues on either side turned toward the center aisle and directed their legions to the alter where they laid the flowers on the steps.

As they returned to their seats and the song expended one last melodious note, two women gathered up the flowers and began to redistribute them to the ladies who were again deep in prayer. In my 18 years of Catholicism, I had never seen anything quite like it but then I heard the pattern. A prayer beginning with “Maria”, over and over. And then a different prayer led with “Padre”. Could it be that they are saying the rosary? I listened harder. “en tierra como en el cielo” – on earth like in heaven. “perdonamos nuestros deudores” – forgive our debts. “líbranos del malo” - Yes, deliver us from evil! That is the Lord’s Prayer. But where are the rosaries? As I searched the crowd, once again they took to the aisles and presented their flowers as they rounded home base. Who needs beads when you can play ring around the rosary! I like this Church.

It shouldn't be this hard

I woke up fine. I read late into the night and slept well until nearly 10:00. From the blinding light that seared my brain when I removed my eyeshades, I could see that it is another beautiful day in paradise. Two canary yellow - well, maybe canaries – dove past my window playing a game of chase through the mango branches. I lingered a moment longer in bed considering the paucity of things on my to-do list. They included: check e-mail, return movie rental, buy some yogurt. I smiled a huge Cheshire cat grin in apt recognition that having nothing to do is infinitely superior to real life. With that I was up and at em.

The cool air of mid-morning fluttered through the tangled canopy that surrounds Casa Bentley, appearing as a dense green cloud in all directions. For a moment I tried to let my eyes adjust, wiping the night’s sleep from them but it was no use. I found if I focused on the yellow mangoes or bright green coconuts affixed tightly in place and too weighty to sway with the leaves, the trees started to take shape.

I ventured out in my pajamas to make a cup of tea and was greeted by Bob’s pooch, Samyra, and the new innkeeper, Alvaro, along the way. Oh happy day!

Just as a I sat down at my little secretary to fire up the laptop, I felt an indulgently insolent voice say – screw it, go out and enjoy the morning! Vaguely recognizing the voice as my own, I relocated with my tea cup and my camera to the patio. After snapping a few photos and finishing my tea I grew restless and annoyed with the flies providing the perfect transition back to work mode.

It was no surprise that I logged on to 47 new messages. In fact, that’s about a third of the usual morning haul. My clients know I am out of the country and will not likely start appearing in the morning queue for another week with “quick questions” followed by well wishing signoffs. By the third week they are projecting the many things I will need to do for them when I return. The fourth week they feign to forget my return date and ask when they can expect to receive this and that. But week one – this week - is pure bliss.

My only work commitment on vacation is to review the happenings in the world of healthcare information technology. I steeled myself for the inevitable onslaught of bad news that has been a daily staple in my life for nearly 10 years. Here’s a sampling of the day’s highlights:

  • Avoidable Childbirth Injuries Remain an Issue at Hospitals
  • Report finds 70 children died after lapses in medical care
  • Doctors: Our hospital is health risk
  • Alleged hospital negligence kills child
  • Three thousand veterans exposed to HIV and Hepatitis B and C during endoscopy
  • Private records of almost 200 patients lost; Move led to blunder
  • Common CT drug triggers fatal allergic reactions
  • Device-maker accused of fraudulent testing
  • NRC Report: Medical Event involving an underdose due to technician error
  • Three elderly patients died after being given inappropriate drugs, inquest jury finds
  • Illness, Medical Bills Linked to Nearly Two-Thirds of Bankruptcies

I felt the familiar tingle of agitation on the back of my neck and the swelling wave of nausea in my stomach that signals I am nearly done with this abhorrent task. I wish I didn’t know that last week a couple in England had their last viable fertilized embryo accidently implanted in another woman’s uterus due to a lab mix-up. Or that 1 in 5 medication doses given in a hospital are given in error. Or that patients wake up during surgery, strangle against bedrails, and die of slow, agonizing deaths from infections they can only get inside a healthcare facility. Not knowing any of this would be fine and dandy with me. But, if knowing results in some improvement, I’ll take the morning punch to the gut.

And then a particular headline caught my eye: Health insurers refuse to limit rescission of coverage. Apparently executives of three of the nation's largest health insurers testified before congress this week. Investigators demonstrated that health insurers WellPoint Inc., UnitedHealth Group and Assurant Inc. canceled the coverage of more than 20,000 people, allowing the companies to avoid paying more than $300 million in medical claims over a five-year period. The companies targeted individuals with conditions such as breast cancer, lymphoma, pregnancy and high blood pressure. The companies staunchly defended their right to rescission tactics. Shocked congressmen asked the insurance executives whether they would at least commit to immediately stopping rescissions except where they could show "intentional fraud." The answer from all three executives: "No."

WTF, my friends! Ed and I have been trying to purchase independent health insurance for nearly 6 months. We feel strongly that we do not need the Cadillac of health coverage offered by his employer nor the price tag that comes along with it. We had hoped to establish a high-deductable plan that protected us in the event of something awful but that funneled our low healthcare costs through a responsible tax-free health savings plan. Only there’s a problem – neither Celia nor I have been deemed insurable by the jackass-led “insurance”companies characterized above. Celia was denied coverage based on a childhood history of ear infections! Now I learn that even if I “win” coverage then fall gravely ill with cancer or (gulp) pregnancy, the bastards will likely drop my coverage anyway!

I sat in front of my computer feeling my pulse race. I decided to share the article with Ed hoping that he’d add some levity to the situation so I fired it off only to immediately receive a message from my omnipotent System Administrator stating, “Your message did not reach some or all of the intended recipients. Relaying denied. IP name possibly forged.” Meaning, it seemed, that I have been identified by my ISP as a possible Mexican fraud and they enacted their own rescission tactic.

I held my head in my hands and chanted my all too routine mantra, “It shouldn’t be this hard. It shouldn’t be this hard…” But with no one to rant to and little possible recourse for the time being, I just stood up and crossed the room. I slid into my long cotton halter dress, smoothed my hair into a ponytail noting that I should add a shower to the day's to-do list, and headed out for yogurt. The outing was a great success. I returned to a freshly cleaned suite, my ISP has taken me off their Most Wanted list, and, although I am still uninsurable, that is a worry easily assuaged by tequila.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Let it go, already!

I admit it, I am slow to let things go. Mistakes, mostly mine but sometimes others, register deeply with me. Once something has gotten under my skin it becomes so persistent an irritant that I’ll let it drag me down into a festering funk. Case in point, when the Easter Bunny failed to put eggs around our yard and shoddily left Celia’s Easter basket sitting on the kitchen counter where she found it while her parents slept-in, I fought the funk but it succeeded in spoiling my morning. On every level I logically understand that by letting the small offenses of others and mistakes of my own go, I can be a happier person. And yet, I’ve not found a way to let things go.

So I thought that it was perfectly apropos when I read that the subject matter of this week’s Dharma talk was pure salt in my self-inflicted wound. On Sunday mornings in Todos Santos a small brick building which doubles as a dojo, yoga studio and party venue belongs to Dr. Robert K Hall, a retired psychotherapist and ordained Buddhist Priest and his pupils who turn out for his Dharma talks. Accepting that maybe meditation is the solution to my self-destructive tenacity, I broke my cardinal rule of Todos Santos and set an alarm clock to learn more. In addition to heeding the alarm, the morning posed a number of challenges.

Catholics say that Sunday mass is a time to reflect. Really? I was a practicing Catholic for nearly two decades and I recall the mass being about genuflecting, standing, singing, sitting, kneeling, sitting, standing, giving peace, singing, kneeling, taking communion, kneeling, sitting, standing, singing and genuflecting – roughly in that order. Exactly where in that spasm of spirituality would you find to time to reflect? What I found, during my time in the pew was ample opportunity to day dream, obsess, plan and even work in some covert butt clenching to tone up for bikini season. With this definition of reflection, I’m not surprised that I’m meditatively challenged.

I arrive at the dojo with local residents and long-time Dharma pupils, Glen and Arlene who have graciously invited me to join them. As the room fills with people exchanging hellos and vying for seats, a man enters. Before a group of about 30 locals seated in plastic lawn chairs, Dr. Hall, dressed in breezy white linen, folds himself down into a kneeling position on to a tower of teetering pillows and tucks a blanket over his lap. Hall is a gentle but sturdy-looking man in his mid-60s with a broad, open face. His job on this morning is to lead us through an hour-long session of Vipassana or Insight Meditation and he looks like the right man for the job.

I steal a quick look around the room while I still have a chance – expecting that meditation might discourage idle people watching. For the most part I am about 30 years younger than the congregation average. Most are recent retirees who have ex-patrioted themselves to simpler lives in Mexico. I recognize individuals from town – several of them well-known artists. I notice that they all have an easiness about them which suggests few are new to meditation. I can see that this group is an eager choir to Dr. Hall’s signing.

Looking much like a legless Buddha in a crisp Cuban-style shirt, Dr. Hall starts to talk about our physical beings – starting at our feet and dialoging – ever so smoothly – up our bodies. [Ug! We’ve started our meditation and I’m already behind!] I sit up straight and give a quick shout-out to my feet, claves and thighs to catch up with the group’s contemplation of bellies. Confirming my general reluctance to fixate on my midsection, I see that sitting upright in the plastic lawn chair is making my belly squeeze over my waist band in a most unflattering way. [Maybe if I slide back in the chair and recline a bit the roll will subside. That’s better but now my feet – hi feet – don’t touch the ground. Oh well. Shoot I missed the shoulders and neck!]

We are on to breathing. I take a few deep breaths as directed, feeling “the life-giving process course through my body.” As we breathe deeply with conscious thought my thinking goes to the phlegmy tickle in my throat. [Don’t cough. No one else is making noise. Try swallowing – nope. It’s getting worse! I should just clear it – but if I only do it half way, I’ll have to do it again. Then I’ll be a repeat offender.]

While I wrestle with my inner demon, the group moves on to calming their minds. If you’ve never tried meditating you won’t believe the complete lack of control you have over your own mind. The goal is simple - blankly focus on clearing the mind by listening to your breath and constantly bringing your mind back to nothing when it strays. And stray it will. [I wonder if Arlene would give Celia a piano lesson while we are here…oh crap, exhale. Focus, damn it… I should ask Ed to bring some more mosquito spray – this bite itches… that flounder was good last night…] In 10 minutes of effort, I accomplish about 10 seconds of near meditation. Just when I am about to internally berate my ADD self, Hall tells us to gently bring our minds back to rest, without punishing ourselves. [Saved by the bell, self.] I’m finally getting the hang of it when I realize the whole group is now sitting tall looking at Dr. Hall who is smiling back like a happy Hotei. The smile is infectious and soon everyone is smiling including me.

We are on to the Dharma talk portion of the program. Hall begins in a soft, soothing voice by calling our attention to the news today of the election in Iran. [Really? Everyone else is nodding like this is common knowledge. I should Google this when I get back to the hotel.] A candidate has won and, in true Iranian fashion, the opposition has been jailed and the dissenting public is receiving demonstrative beatings in the streets –while the victor professes the advent of new and impenetrable joy for his countrymen to the CNN correspondent. For a moment I think we are headed for a political discussion and I feel myself wince, lamenting that I ever bent my no alarm clock rule. But instead Dr. Hall gets right to the point.

The world is – and always has been - suffering from polarized views and belief systems. The human condition, he says, is plagued by the fundamental role the ego plays in interpreting everything that happens – directly or indirectly – as it relates to one’s self. We spend our years developing and nurturing our sense of self in order to build an identity. We become –ists to various –isms. We subscribe to theories and denounce others. Each opinion, preference and prejudice is fashioned into an arduously-cut stone with which we embellish our life’s work – ourselves. We grow stronger in our beliefs by clinging to these jewels. It turns out that our precious views are essentially the problem. [Wait – I’m no expert but I’ve seen my share of after school specials. Isn’t knowing yourself the goal? If I don’t know what I think and feel, how will I have voice? Are you saying that my voice isn’t helping? Quick, think of a time my voice has helped someone – thinking… missing the conversation, still thinking…crap, what did Dr. Hall just say?]

No one view point is more right or more just. Hitler [ballsy choice] had a point of view that conflicted with a good number of non-Aryan dissenters. [Hold up now – he can’t mean that any view point is equally good for mankind, can he? This is getting complicated, I wish I was taking notes.] The key, Dr. Hall, says [I’m listening…] is in learning to connect with our mind on a level below identity, deeply beneath the labels that define us – not as men or women, gay or straight, republican or democrat, Muslim or Jew – but as a component of humanity. [Oh. That totally makes sense. It’s like reducing organized religion to the golden rule. But HOW does one…] And then he said it. “You just have to let go.”

[No, no, no! That can’t be the secret to happiness.Next you'll tell me that patience is the key tot he kindom - I am so screwed!]

Horrified, I will Dr. Hall to launch into metaphysical mumbo-jumbo which makes no sense at all so I can cling to my jewel of intolerance. But, no dice. Instead he says when we let go of the beliefs that polarize us from others we achieve an awareness based on the totality of each situation – not a single point of view. We can then empathize with all humans because we see all points of view. Dr Hall pauses for a moment and then rewards the class yet again with his happy Buddha smile to signal the crucial bit of information coming our way. I’m on the edge of my seat, despite the belly roll. He says that if we can find this awareness, at the end of our days, we can truly let it all go in death as we did in life – no clinging needed.

Damn! Looks like I have to forgive the Easter Bunny.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Flambé day in Hell’s Kitchen


Well into my second annual month of living in Todos Santos I decide it’s a shame that I have never ventured north to the town of La Paz. The setting of many a Steinbeck tale, La Paz rests just North across the Baja peninsula on the Sea of Cortez. From the accounts of others, I’d pieced together a romantically quaint city center embracing a mile-long seaside promenade. In my estimation, the soundtrack of this fictitious destination is decidedly the slow, rhythmic crooning of Mexican ranchero music. I’d also heard that La Paz has a massive shopping mall with a giant Siriana (Mexican Walmart), a fact that made the effort to finally visit that much more enticing.

Much to my delight, Ed rented a Jeep for the week as a special treat for me. My inner Daisy Duke has craved one (minus the golden hood eagle, of course) since I was in middle school. When Ed and Celia arrived in a white, open-top CJ, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d brought my cut off jean shorts. Proud of his well-negotiated rental, Ed assured me that there would no chance of rain during our trip thus no need for a top. Ahhhh – the infinite naiveté of the gringo.

We set out early for La Paz on Bob’s advice. He warned us that it would be hot by mid-day and we would want to be settled into a shady café long before noon. The drive out of Todos Santos was lovely and cool with the Jeep allowing the perfect amount of wind to cancel out the still waking sun’s heat. We could see the peaks of Los Cuchumatanes standing beyond the vast expanses of Saguaro cacti each elevation a lighter shade of grey than the one behind it. Sipping our lattes and chatting merrily, we marveled at the well-maintained two-lane highway. Although a shoulder would help ease the fear of rolling from the road at the slightest swerve like a fallen coconut, the blacktop was marked with a center line and recently paved – nirvana for the Baja driver.

When we were about 30 minutes from La Paz, the sun had taken control of the situation. Suddenly we grasped the value of a covered Jeep and – believe it or not – it has nothing to do with precipitation. I could feel the sweat pooling in my cleavage. Under Ed’s shoulder belt, a damp swath of t-shirt was soaked through. I turned back to see how Celia was half expecting to see her melted into the vinyl seats. She was withering but still cheerful and chirped out the requisite, “Are we there yet?”

We passed a road crew pouring hot asphalt onto the new four-lane section of the highway. A man dressed in heavy denim coveralls with a bandana around his face, shoveled steaming black globs of crude oil onto the road. What heinous crime against humanity could that man have possibly done in a past life to deserve such a task? Seeing the road crew in their jeans and long-sleeve shirts literally baking themselves on the new asphalt I wondered how long I’d last. Hell, I was beginning to question if I’d make it to La Paz.

By the time we entered the city, all chatter had ceased in the Jeep. Following a hand-drawn map we snaked our way through the anything but quaint streets taking on the full brunt of the 100+ degree heat. With the sun at its apogee and us exposed to its merciless touch at all angles, we found our way to the waterfront where the plan was to park, take in a meal at a recommended restaurant, have an ice cream and enjoy the long boardwalk embellished with bronze-cast sea creatures and souvenir shops. That was the plan anyway.

This is how events actually transpired. Driving through the non-romantic, non-quaint, oven we searched in silence for a place to park our Chrysler-made cauldron. First near the recommended restaurant, then anywhere the flippin’ jeep might be wedged in. Finally, sensing that Celia and I might spontaneously combust, Ed stopped in front of a restaurant that can only be described as the Dick’s Last Resort of Mexico. He suggested that we get out. I was out of the vehicle, Celia in hand, before he could give any further detail of his plans thereafter. We crossed into the cantina’s dark, cool reception area like sailors making for the brothel on a day pass. The hostess asked how many would be in our party. With only a few neurons still functioning, the question seemed like it might be a trick. I said three – hopeful that Ed would survive parking in hell.

He did and after a plate of nachos no Mexican would dare eat and a cool beverage we made another go at the waterfront. Strolling along the promenade cutting through the thick air rank with the scent of day-old fish, we passed trinket emporiums, sparsely populated restaurants, and sleeping nightclubs shabby in the light of day. Three blocks into the stroll we’d sweat out our Frescas and again all chatter ceased. Seeing an ice cream shop, we moved as if of one mind, into the shop – as much for the air conditioning as for the icy treat. Cooled inside and out, Ed bravely suggested that we head along the coast to one of the beaches Bob had suggested. Celia perked up at the thought of swim so we headed back to the Jeep, masochism in full throttle.

The moment my foolish ass hit the black seat I knew the day was unlikely to improve. The throbbing of my burnt bum soothed only by the pool of sweat gathering on the seat implored me to abandon all romantic notions of pearl divers in crystal waters. My mind or rather a part further south, considered the options – we could see a movie, walk the aisles of Home Depot, camp out in a McDonalds until the sun went down. Yet, presented with the possibility of swimming, Celia goaded us on.

As we snaked along the again-shoulderless-road past again-not-quaint oil refineries, Celia asked, “Where is that place with the statues?”
“What?” I asked weakly wondering if the SPF 60 we had applied was capable of screening the death rays of La Paz.
“Where was that place with the statues?” she repeated louder and more sharply.
“I don’t know what you mean, Celia. Here in Mexico?” I asked with equal sharpness.
Looking to Ed for help I see that he wouldn’t be any since his attention was applied to keeping the Jeep from plummeting off the coastal cliff on which we swerved to an fro.
An exasperated child on the verge of heat stroke snapped back, “You know what I mean! The STATUES!” annunciating statues as if it were yet another Spanish word I was incapable of retaining. “WHERE ARE THEY?!”
In my own defense, I didn’t plan to go Joan Crawford on my daughter. There was no intent or precognition. I plead heat. I had sweat out the last of my patience reserves while fanning my scorched ass ten minutes earlier. I burst, berating the lack of specificity in her question. Condemning her for the unacceptable tone with which it was issued and closing the tirade with something, I believe, akin to an accusation of her being a “meanie.”
Tears ensued – hers, not mine - followed by an indiscernible indictment of my poor parenting. The words blurred together in long strands of garbled charges leaving a wake of allegations of utter injustice in our path.

In retrospect, the small cove at which we stopped to swim was quite lovely. Shallow blue-green water provided the ideal watery playground for a 6-year-old. Surrounded by Mexico’s trademark crags of infertile rock which seems only to grow hand-painted “For Sale” signs, Playa el Tesoro features about 20 palapas and a small restaurant. But as I sweltered, I saw only searing sand and the massive reflector of solar fury provided by the water’s surface.

Forgiven my trespasses, Celia rebounded to splash into the water to chase schools of small fish. I propped up our sun umbrella with the intention of riding out the day as inert as possible. Ed joined Celia in the water and there was a reprieve in which I sat at the shore line with my feet in the water – not quite happy but distancing myself from rage. A rouge wind sensing my vulnerability, like a heat-seeking missile to its target, tore across the cove and sent my umbrella (and camera hanging on the umbrella pole) careening inverted across the sand. I chased the fugitive sunshade at more of a sprint that I care to execute publicly in a bathing suit much to the amusement of the Mexican families lurking under the deep shade of the sturdier palapas. Dragging the unwieldy umbrella back to the shore still fighting the wind, I saw that the waves had picked up and were now lapping over my towel encroaching on our bag of dry clothes. Again I ran, cellulite in motion, with the uncooperative umbrella fighting me every step of the way. With my free hand, I gather the sopping towel, bag and miscellaneous strewn items – hat, sunscreen, sandals – shit! Where are Ed’s sandals? Hunched over like a pack mule, I see Ed’s Keens floating out to sea about 10 feet off shore. The rage is back.

About 10 minutes later Ed and Celia traipse from the cooling waters to find our stuff heaved into the shade of a palapa. I’m drenched in sweat angrily choking down a bottle of water.
“If we stay here they will ask ups to pay for the palapa,” Ed says, “How long do you want to stay?”
With seemingly inexplicable ire I spat back at him, “I hate it here!”
Ever the quick study, Ed took the cue. “Okay Celia, time to go.”

Certain that one of us would perish from heat-related death on the ride home, I fashioned a MacGyver-inspired tent for the Jeep to shade Celia. A Mexican blanket fastened to the roll bars flapped in the wind as we headed toward home. At the outskirts of our government-designated “pueblo magico” the mountains have inversed their succession of grey tones and accessorized with orange tips cast from the setting sun. Legions of saguaro, themselves casting shadows twice as long as their up-stretched arms, silently regale the mountain’s most picturesque evening wear. The wind turned cool – so cool that I had to dismantle the jeep’s woolen canopy so Celia could cover up. As the church bell tower came into view, Ed and I began to chuckle at the days misadventures. Rounding the last turn to Casa Bentley, the mango groves of the valley came into view with their top branches flecked in the last pink light of the day. Without seeing it, I could sense the cool fresh spring water percolating to the earth’s surface painting a vibrant swath of green through the valley to the ocean. I knew then, I’d never again stray from my romantic, quaint, magical town of Todos Santos.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A lesson in humility


Once a day I force myself out of hermited isolation to meet with Guilermo under the Hule tree. Before you settle into harlequin images of a passionate romp in white sands with a sun-kissed Latin lover, I’ll tell you that Guilermo is an older gentleman retained to improve my feeble grasp of Spanish. Though I suspect Guilermo may have been a well employed Latin lover in his youth, now he passes the afternoon hour of one to two in the dense shade of the 50-year-old rubber tree outside my casita in childish conversations about bus stops, business hours, and grooming practices.

I’m not new to Spanish lessons which makes the hour-long exercise in humiliation that much more agonizing. I understand the majority of what Guilermo says but it usually takes me a minute to figure out if he’s telling me something (so I can relax) or if he’s asking me something (in which case I must brace myself for the horror of responding.)
It goes something like this…
Guilermo says in Spanish, “When I was young, I had many friends who played music.” His voice rises ever so slightly at end to ensure that I am understanding but I take this wayward note to mean it is my turn to speak.
“No, my friends do not play music,” I bi-lingually react.
He looks at me for a moment so I assume I’ve conjugated the verb wrong. I immediately stammer, “No, my friends did not play music” and then smile wantonly for a “muy bien” – the biscuit of my training.
Guilermo points to his torso and says, slowly this time, “When I was young, my friends played music” but this time he adds ample pointing and mock guitar strumming.

Well shit! If everyone in Meixco spoke like that I’d be all set!

At least half of our daily session revolves around verb tense. Second only to my daily duty to squashing a coachroach half-again as large as my big toe, this portion of my I lesson is a low point of the day. I remember when Celia was two years old and I’d ask what color something was and she’d proudly produce the name of a color! If she got the right one for the object in question it was pure coincidence. But she’d bark out colors until she got it right and we’d each beam with pride. This is me - minus the beaming - during daily verb torture. I struggle through a litany of veritable verb forms “Yo voy… no! fue…crap, fui?..” sometimes to realize that I just exhausted every possible form of the wrong word. Guilermo, ever the gentleman, calmly witnesses my seizure before stating the sentence properly. My spirit broken, I quietly parrot back the sentence nodding my head and saying “por supuesto” meaning, “of course” which is, ironically, the one thing I can always remember how to say.

I believe that parallel sentence structure in Spanish should be a sort of nirvana for second language seekers – like achieving gourmet status, accomplishing a marathon, or shaving one’s legs every day. Even if I somehow happen to get the subject and verb to agree, I trip on the gender of object, use the wrong article, or fail to find an adjective that can agree –for even a moment – with the wrongly emasculated object. In a mere six words, I can manage to get all but one right. And YET, the listener - when not in fits of laughter - can usually understand my meaning. So while I try to hit the verb lottery with Guilermo, in life beyond the Hule tree, I stick with setting the tense by stating the timeframe and then clinging to first person present like this, “Yesterday, I go to the store,” and “Tomorrow, I go to the store.” It’s not eloquent, I admit, but given the alternative is to sound like I’m afflicted with Spanish Touretts syndrome, I’ll save conjugation efforts for Guilermo – he’s paid not to laugh.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

An Idle Mind

I know virtually nothing about auto mechanics but I know that on a bone-rattling-cold January morning in Michigan, a 1971 Chevette will continually stall out if the idle is set too low. I also know that sitting in a metal box after spending 20 minutes scraping windshield glaciers thumping your head on the steering wheel will not reset the idle.

I’m certain there is a very good explanation for the particulars of mechanical idle calibration but I liken it to fluctuating caffeine levels. With too low levels, my body will not accelerate beyond the stasis of morning bitchiness onto productive behavior. With too high levels, the whirl in my head hits a note well beyond a dog’s audible range. (That begs the question – is there a species that can hear this pitch? Maybe this is why I cannot keep house plants alive?)

I’ve returned to Mexico this summer to recharge my proverbial batteries. In the past year, Caffeine – my oldest and dearest enabling friend – has failed me. Our once powerful embrace has fallen to chemical impotence. No focus. No spontaneous desire to turn cartwheels. No ability to deny circadian rhythms. What’s worse, I didn’t see it coming. It is a betrayal I may never forgive. I shudder to think what might have become of me if it weren’t for the steadfast devotion of Scotch and Tequila. With five full days and nights of pure, self-centered decompression, surely my energy, optimism (admittedly low-grade on a good day but rarely absent), and ambition will return. And yet on day three I can see the plants outside my casita beginning to feel the effects of the unsuppressed whirl.

For the first two days, I hunkered deeply into my little compound hidden beneath mango trees laden with infant fruit still green with inexperience. In two weeks, the mangoes will learn the sun’s secret and blush red with their knowledge. In the meanwhile, faced with limitless prospects of self-indulgence, I dove like a Jenny Craig defector, into the sweet treats of my week-long sabbatical. I watched three movies, a full season of a Canadian mini-series, read 100+ pages of my novel about ante-bellum life in Virginia, listened to hours of music pouring forth from my ipod, devoured celebrity gossip like a Japanese school girl, and marveled at my inability to retain Spanish verbs for more than a moment. It is to be expected, I guess. How could they find their place among my thoughts within the whirling? They fled within minutes – “ir” led the way but “venir” and “estar” were right behind him.

So – it’s day four and now I know this is not about my batteries at all. I need to lower my idle to a hum just north of stalling out completely. This requires tough love. I ban the award-winning authors to my suitcase. I cancel tonight’s date with several prominent indy actors and resolve to leave the tales of deliciously flawed celebrities to other pool-side loungers. I tell them all, one by one, that when the whirl dies down to a hum - no, a purr - we’ll talk.

Delightful distractions cast aside, I set the course for a new day with a simple plan. I will make amends with caffeine over a conciliatory latte at Vonn Café letting the street noise penetrate unimpeded by hi-fidelity ear phones. I will not neglect caffeine by reading or studying through our reunion – no wonder it left me! I’ll take in the afternoon sun at the pool armed only with introspection and powers of observation. There’s no doubt nightfall will be the real challenge. To pass the evening hours without the lulling effects of passive entertainment could prove too much for me. But, with Tequila by my side, I am determined to make through. Hell, if a 20-year-old Chevette could idle in -10 degree windchill, I can idle alone in Mexico with a margarita.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The massage

How not to start the day.

I woke up at 10:30 and remember that I had scheduled a massage – my first since arriving here - for 11:00.

Dilemma #1 – Privacy vs Parental duty. I could take my massage in our room but then Celia would be (1) outside and unsupervised or (2) way to close. No brainer – I positioned Celia in a lounge chair where I could hear her playing Elmo’s World on my computer but not be completely distracted. Then I directed the masseur, Zasho, to set up in the shade of the stone cabana off of pool. From there, I could keep an ear on Celia without constant interruption.

Dilemma #2 – Modesty vs Quality Massage. I’m a seasoned, if not spicy, spa-goer and I know from years of experience, the best massages cannot take place with clothing on. Zasha clearly knows this too but merely suggested that no clothing is a good approach while he patted two optional towels left on the massage table before he stepped away to wash his hands. I stood there in turmoil. My options were to take the table butt-naked in a location that lost to parental duty or ensure a terrible, awkward massage by forcing Zasho to work around my bathing suit straps. Operating with consciousness barley 30 minutes old, I opted for the former and climbed onto the table glad that one always begins face down. Five minutes into my massage horror seeps into my feeble morning brain – not because the workmen can see me on when they rise up on their tip-toes, not because the two other couples staying at Casa Bentley might loath my wicked ways (surely, they would feel differently if they had a child to protect!), not for the inevitable therapy expense some day ascribed to Celia’s vague memory of mama’s naked rub by Zasho, the Austrian Yogi. No, I wavered between bliss and gut-wrenching anxiety for a much better reason. My business partner and his wife were still on site! My mind reeled at the thought of the two of them approaching the cabana, stepping into the thick black curtain of shade only to find me naked as the day I was born. I tried to put it out of my mind. I prayed that they were in town doing some last minute shopping before they depart of the airport. But knowing that Mark could walk up at any moment, I willed the time to fly by despite the melting motions of my masseur.

It came time for the dreaded flip and still no sign of Mark. As I orchestrated my flip with all the care and precision of a crane maneuvering a T-bar into place, I was shocked by how bright the day was even in the cabana. Behind my pinched lids, it was easier to believe that I was not readily visible but with my eyes open there was no denying my exposure. I asked Zasho for a towel saying that I’d hate to destroy worker productivity on the job site just beyond the pool wall.

Dilemma #3 – Two regions; one hand towel. There are three unique features of the female frontal landscape that one might wish to conceal. They can be divided into two distinct regions – both of which cannot be simultaneously shielded with a single hand towel. Pressed for time, I opted to cloak the southern territory with the logic that the northern region had already been partially exposed by my bathing suit for the bulk of my 3 weeks in Mexico.

When my 50-minute massage entered into its 90th minute, I had nearly forgotten about Mark. As Zasho lingering for an eternity on my sandal-sore feet and the skin on my northern exposure enjoyed the rare breathy breeze –my luck ran out. From behind the potted palm I heard Mark’s voice. In a strained stage whisper he said, “Jamie, we love you. Thank you. We are leaving now.” I raised an oiled arm and gave a stiff Queen Mum wrist wave so as not to send the ladies into motion. If ever there was a full body blush – certainly I was a perfect specimen at that moment.

When I had been kneaded inert, Zasho lifted his hands from my hide. I hoisted the hand towel over my bits and pranced off to put on my swimsuit. Shrouded in a quarter yard of Lycra confidence, I returned to thank Zasho feeling uncharacteristically bashfully. “Thank you,” I said handing over my 500 pesos and a tip. He tucked the money into his pocket and replied in his light-as-air accent, “Thank you. I found it to be quite inspiring myself.” There was no innuendo in his tone. He wasn’t making a play or even being cheeky. I was flattered and flustered all at once so I did what I always do, I made a joke. “I hope Bob’s new casita reflects the inspiration his workers have been given this morning.” As we turned our eyes in the direction of the new building, four dark-haired heads plunged behind the bougainvillea and the sounds of hammers and drills returned.