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.