I am still learning even though I’ve been in Mexico almost full time for 3 years. I often make cultural gaffes, and even though Mexicans are very polite, sometimes I know I just goofed from the look on their faces.
Case in point - a recent experience when we stopped by a restaurant for a drink and light snack before my hair cut appointment this week in Cabo.
I had thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon co-working at Biznest Coworking. The Senora who owns the location has great entrepreneurial energy, I am sure we would be friends if I lived here. She speaks mostly Spanish and has hired a young man who speaks perfect English to help with English speaking clients.
When we arrive, they are both there, in their branded shirts, smiling and saying hello. Sergio loves to tag along because they bring us coffee and little cookies. Like many Mexicans, he loves freebies. I mean who doesn't? But here it's intense - we have seen lines stretch around the block for a bag of free swag from brands during events in the Zocalo or street fairs.
We only have an hour in between the co-work session and my haircut. I check google and see one restaurant close by, Puerta Vieja. It is a big place, with a long history captured in photos of the owner with presidents and celebs on the wall.
It is still low season in Cabo, and it's about 4 hours before regular 9 PM dinner, so there is only one other party when we arrive.
Our waiter, who’s name tag says Oscar, shows us our seating options - large toasty outdoor patio with late afternoon sun, interior dining room that is a little stuffy, or enclosed air conditioned room with no one else in there.
Mexican restaurant service is usually 100% better than typical service the US, with a hierarchy in the team assigned to your table - a main waiter and his assistant, sometimes a third for water and clearing dishes.
We just want a drink and a snack, so I’m not looking for a sit down dinner with the "white glove and 3 waiters" ritual that is common here, especially in the low season when you may be the only client all day and everyone is bored to death waiting around.
Not to mention waiters make almost nothing per hour. They depend on tips to survive, so low season is literally dead calm for them.
There are 2 men sitting at the bar eating. Its a very cool bar - dark stained carved wood with iron accents, like a pirate bar in a Spanish port city.
I say to Sergio, Lets just eat at the bar, it’s more casual, and they won’t expect us to order a full dinner.
Sergio always tells me not to worry about that and he is right. You shouldn’t worry about it either. We often have drinks and share a small plate sitting at a regular dining table. No one ever looks pained or even thinks of charging extra to split.
Old habits die hard, though. I still feel strange ordering 2 drinks and a quesadilla, sitting at a table set for a 5 course meal, with 3 waiters at our beck and call.
I’m also trying not to be a total baby about the heat and run to a table in the AC room. I bravely assume there might be a breeze from the entry, those 2 men at the bar don’t look too uncomfortable.
We ask Oscar, aka Mesero #1, if it’s OK to sit at the bar. He looks surprised but says, OK. We pick 2 seats at the corner of the bar. Yeah, its a little warm but no problem.
Sergio gets up to peruse the presidential photos in the entry area, which is sort of like a hotel lobby, big enough to handle a high season crowd. Mesero #2 comes over to the bar with silverware and linens.
It is then I realize that my attempt to be low key and save them some effort has resulted in the exact opposite. There are at at least 50 table settings all around, and here Mesero #2 is, cheerfully setting up 2 more for the high maintenance Gringa who wants to eat at the bar, which, by the way, is not a thing here except for American chains like Chili's and TGI Fridays.
A couple minutes later, I notice the air at ankle level is not moving, it is nice and dim down there with a swarm of mosquito activity. I’m just about to ask for a fan when Mesero #2 returns with bug spray. I say (in Spanish) Thank you! You read my mind!
I’m sitting on the bar stool and reflexively stick out my legs, he looks a little surprised and I immediately think, what are you doing, Kala? Uh, no, we’re not at the beach and he’s not a cabana boy. He’s not going to spray your legs with OFF at the bar.
The two men down the way stop eating to watch all this unfold. I jump off the stool and grab the spray without really looking at it, laugh and say, No quiero usarlo cerca de la comida - I don’t want to spray it on near the food - and I go into the lobby to join Sergio and use the spray on my legs.
I put some on and its kind of foamy and gloppy, not like the fine spray of cancer-causing bug repellent goodness I’m used to.
I look at the label and it says “Jardin” - it is yard spray. It has warnings in Spanish on the back label with skulls as big as Dia de Los Muertos Calaveras.
At this exact moment Sergio looks over at me and says, Ai amor, que estas haciendo? What are you doing? Este no es por tu piel! That’s not for your skin! He’s got that bemused look like, I can’t leave you alone for a minute.
Oscar / Mesero #1, who was likely alerted to my erratic behavior by Mesero #2 after proffering my legs for a treatment and then running off with the yard spray, comes around the corner with a smile and a bottle of OFF lotion.
I grew up in Houston where most people, including my family, had a bug exterminator on monthly retainer, and fogging trucks drove up and down in the spring and summer, spraying a cloud of insecticide into the cul de sacs for mosquito control. Groups of neighborhood boys on bikes, just like in the ET movie, would pedal behind the truck as fast as they could to catch the spray.
I never went that far, but I am a little worried about my chemical exposure, and I begin to wonder if I’ll sprout a third arm out of my forehead if I don’t wash off the yard spray soon. I thank Oscar and retreat to the bathroom to wash my legs and reapply the slightly less poisonous OFF lotion.
I come back to the bar, Sergio has sprayed the base around our stools and the bugs have, for the moment, subsided. And, Thank God, Wine Has Arrived.
Oscar, after politely observing my one ring circus, has given me a decent pour.
Here is a tip - wine is still catching on in Mexico. Sometimes your first pour will be regulation 6 ounces, especially if the manager is on duty and the restaurant is not busy.
If you smile a lot, thank them for the little things like clearing your plate or more water, the second pour is almost always bigger than the first unless the pesky manager is watching like a hawk.
Ladies, Mexican men love attention, too, so you don’t have to look like Salma Hayek to ingratiate yourself with your Mesero. Learn a little Spanish, become a regular, smile a lot, tip 15% (the typical tip in Mexico is 10%) and you have it made.
Men, don’t feel left out, it works for gringos, too, as Mexicans are very appreciative of friendly attitudes. It can take years to work up to be Mesero #1 in nicer restaurant, they are very proud of their position and love it when you appreciate their efforts and tip them accordingly.
We order our split entree and chat with Oscar a bit. I noticed immediately that his Spanish is very clear. It is one of the first things I noticed when I met Sergio, too.
I ask Oscar where he is from and he says Mexico City! It always makes me happy to meet another Chilango.
Sergio asks which colonia and they narrow down each other’s home turf from the huge sprawl that is CDMX to within a couple of streets within seconds. I can see both of them visualizing the streets hundreds of miles away, like a shared memory analog google earth.
Sergio’s question is normal here. Where you are from gives new acquaintances a substantial unspoken bio. That, coupled with the way you speak, who introduced you, and, it must be said, how dark you are, is how you are judged here on first impression.
I tell Oscar, That is why I can understand your Spanish, you are from Mexico City. He grins.
Oscar is not from a barrio de ricos, but he’s not from one of the poorest, either. He worked his way west from CDMX, following an informal chain of Tios to stay with and Primos to help him get jobs. He’s at this restaurant right now because his cousin worked here.
This micro-example of upward mobility intrigues me. One of the reasons Mexico City is such a huge sprawl is because millions have moved there to find work, and still do.
Oscar has taken the opposite approach. Employment in nicer restaurants in Mexico City is very competitive. He has likely leap frogged a few years of marking time in a mid-level eatery in CDMX by getting some experience in tourist towns.
I ask him if he speaks English. He says, not much. I tell him Hazlo! Do it!
I turned 55 this week, so I have decided it's time to start giving young people unsolicited advice. I know they will love it. I always always tell young people we meet here to learn English. It opens up a whole new world of opportunities.
Plus, Oscar is still young enough to pick it up quickly. I tell him, if you wait, it is much harder when you are viejo. I point to Sergio and Oscar enjoys my poking fun at mi viejo.
Part of Mexico’s controversial school reform is mandatory English. I asked a teacher about it once, she says there are not enough English teachers so the initiative will not have a big impact any time soon.
No breeze has appeared and the mosquitos are back, lapping up the OFF lotion and my sweat. I am not sure if I'm just overheated or in the middle of a 40 minute hot flash. We pay up and head out to the hair salon, which thank goodness has AC.
And oh, those 2 men at the bar? Oscar tells us one of them is the owner. Funny, he didn't ask for a picture with us!
If you are in Cabo San Lucas, stop by Puerta Vieja restauraunt, and ask for Oscar! The space is lovely and the food is delicious. Just don't sit at the bar to eat...
There is a saying that only 6 degrees of acquaintances separate each person on earth - would you believe me if I told you a tiny ex-mining pueblo in Baja shrinks the distance to one of the wealthiest people on the planet to only a couple of degrees?
It’s an interesting example of the distortion in local real estate (and I would imagine, local politics) when a billionaire comes to town.
A couple weeks ago I mentioned we had met Giovanni, an Italian developer in La Paz who collects cars from the 80’s. He has a historic house for sale in Triunfo, a tiny pueblo midway between Todos Santos and La Paz.
He spends every Sunday, even in the low season, at the house showing it to people looking to buy a house, or simply looking to look. Like us.
Triunfo was a mining town back in the day. This part of Baja saw quite a bit of mining and still has some controversial activity. For all the wealth that was extracted, the towns themselves were nothing special, basically just company towns for the workers. The mining legacy includes a couple of streets of old historic buildings and arsenic in the water.
Today Triunfo’s main drag and a street of shops a block over are being restyled for tourism, to catch some of the weekend traffic during the high season coming from Cabo and Todos Santos and La Paz.
We arrive and text Giovanni. He tells us where the house is; very close to the cluster of attractions that include a cafe and bakery Cafe El Triunfo. The cafe is owned by a man from LA who used to have restaurants in Todos Santos and closed shop there as he saw that tiny market become quickly over saturated. Giovanni tells me all this, he claims there are 60 restaurants open in Todos Santos during high season.
Right now the Cafe El Triunfo is pretty much the only game in town here. Giovanni describes it as a gold mine for the owner, I’m not so sure. Its cute and the bread we try from the bakery is delicious, but much of this area is very sleepy most of the year. Perhaps seasonal cash cow would be a better description. Having said that, I’m no expert at local economics, and even if I were, the market here is quite skewed as you will see in a bit.
We walk a block off of the main drag and come to the house, it sits on a corner. We meet and greet and say hello to Giovanni’s mom, a slender pretty older lady with even more Italian flavoring her Spanish than her son has.
They speak Italian with each other. Later, when he is referring to her in a conversation with me, he calls her “Mama”. It’s charming. It makes me want to go to Italy this afternoon and stay for a year.
Given that isn’t an option, we settle for the next best thing, which turns out to be quite a good thing, actually. Giovanni gives us a tour of the house and town. It’s everything you could want from an Italian tour guide. Knowledgeable, opinionated, good backstory and punctuated with lots of hand waving and shoulder shrugs.
It turns out Giovanni is a history buff. He hiked and camped in these old towns and mountains when he was a teenager. He furnished the interior of this house with many antiques that he found or has picked up along the way. He photocopied old photos of the house's original family from local archives and framed them for the hallway.
Our tour starts in the kitchen. Mama, perhaps thinking we are potential buyers, mentions how nice and cool it is in there, compared to outside which is 90 degrees in the sun.
I nod politely, as sweat trickles down my back and I suppress the desire to start panting.
The kitchen is adorable and overstuffed with new appliances crammed into an old layout from before the days of closet-sized refrigerators.
The house plan is a bit odd. One hallway off the kitchen has two rooms on either side. Giovanni has staged both rooms as bedrooms, showing the house as a 2 bedroom with a kitchen and no living area.
The backyard is beautiful, with stone paving, a trellis, native plants, climbing bouganvillea and, unlike the house, features an inviting sitting area.
I feel the pull of Italy once again. I'm hoping that Mama will appear with a jug of cold wine and a cheese tray. Isn't that what Italian mamas do? Alas, my dream scenario does not materialize and we continue with the tour.
At the back we visit an outbuilding he restyled as a bunk house. He mentions it could be a possible rental for the owners of the main house, saying it has been plumbed for a kitchen and bath.
I ask him if he has experimented with AirBnB in any of his other properties.
Si! he did, and No! he doesn’t like it.
We have a friend with a rental house in Cabo who feels the same way - the simplicity of a lease and monthly rent wins out over the extra margin you can make with AirBnB, where you have to spend a lot more time in coordinating logistics and pleasing your customer.
This is one thing some new AirBnB hosts with landlord experience don’t always understand. When you host via AirBnB, your guest is not a tenant. Your guest is a customer.
The traditional tenant / landlord dynamic is rooted in a foundation of haves and have-nots. Not so with AirBnB guests. Your AirBnB guest might be a multi-millionaire couple in town for a festival.
We once stayed in an AirBnB with a rock hard old bed. We were supposed to stay for a month. I asked the host to replace the bed or at least buy a mattress topper. He proposed we split the cost of the new bed.
I pointed out that we would be gone in a month, and that we were his guests, not his tenant, so how did it make sense that I help him buy a new bed for the next guests, and the next?
He didn’t see it that way, and we parted ways amicably after he refunded our payment. I’m pretty sure that house was haunted, anyway, I was glad to leave.
I continue to observe controversy about AirBnB in expensive, tight markets that have a steady flow of tourist traffic. People rail against the company when they should be picketing their city, county and state officials.
AirBnB, like Uber, simply magnifies existing dysfunction in the market. A community neglects affordable housing for decades and suddenly AirBnB is the devil. Hotels serve up boring, undifferentiated, expensive rooms, and then get upset when - surprise! - people would prefer to spend less on homier options.
In Cabo, the taxi drivers continue to protest Uber, while they also continue to extort tourists for $40 and $50 cab rides from the airport, provide substandard service, forbid bus drivers to let tourists ride from the airport, and generally act like a mafia.
Back to Triunfo, where Uber is not even a topic of discussion given that the town population is probably about 12 people.
After our short tour of the 2 bedroom plus a kitchen house, we move out on the town, so to speak.
As we walk out onto the street, I try to buy a beer with lime and salt from a street vendor selling Micheladas - which are beer with lime, salt and clam juice.
I don’t want the clam juice, so they say they don’t have any beer. This is one of those alternate reality moments I often run into in Mexico. There is beer in plain sight but we are all supposed to pretend like that is not the case.
My fried gringa brain does not connect that if I offer to pay full price for the Michelada and just tell them to omit the clam juice, the beer will magically flow, like a miracle spring in the desert.
At any rate, I don’t have time to process because our Italian guide has moved ahead, talking to the air and pointing out this and that.
What emerges from the tour is an interesting fact.
A few years ago, Christy Walton, John Walton’s (of the Walmart family Waltons) widow, one of the richest women in the world, started buying property in Triunfo as well as quite a bit of land in the mountains near here. What is it like to be able to buy a whole mountain, let alone two or three?
Her people are scaling up on a sustainable tourism resort nearby as well. A quick google of water issues shows that she has negotiated rights to water in the region as well. This, of course, is essential to running a resort in the desert and also makes long term business sense, too.
Some members of the Getty family own a house here and in La Paz as well. If this blog were my full time gig, I’d have a lot more factoids for you.
Giovanni, like his Papa before him, has been in real estate in the area his whole life. He acquired the house we just toured years ago. I think he had another small house or building in the area that he sold awhile back, too.
Today, he alludes to the challenges sourcing smaller deals when everyone around the table knows that a new buyer with limitless cash is investing in the area, and has bought several buildings in town as well.
We finish our circular tour of a couple of blocks and arrive back in front of the house. We say goodbye to Giovanni, and Mama, who had stayed behind.
I purposely didn’t look up the selling price of the house because I wanted to guess after I had seen it, the town, and learned some of the backstory.
One of the benefits of being in a place for awhile is the shine wears off and you see beyond the mirage sold to short term visitors who are escaping a stressful home base in the US. My rose-colored view of Todos is less rosy now, having spent two low seasons here staying in the local’s barrio.
Quick tip that I used to think was obvious but now I’m not so sure:
Everyone in real estate here has a story of the hapless American who lost it all. There is a lot of info out there about local conditions that can help people avoid a bad experience.
For one thing, many tourist small towns have local listserv on the internet and often a local print newspaper targeted at English speakers. You should definitely start reading those sources if you are interested in buying property here.
One recent article in the Gringo Gazette (real name, I am not making that up) profiled a development company that is clearly on the ropes. This is public knowledge to the expat locals, but the company is still selling land lots in a new development near here.
I visited Ajijic and Lake Chapala, the oldest and biggest expat community (Americans and Canadians) in Mexico a couple years ago. I saw (and stayed in) concrete homes with barren small lots on unpaved streets, selling for $200K - $300K in the gringo side of town.
Anywhere near town center was even higher. To me the prices seemed quite high given the drug violence in surrounding towns and the fact that the only way out, really, is one easily blocked road that goes to GDL and the airport.
There seems to be an unspoken expat belief that their money also buys a value bubble that settles over the property.
This is sort of is true in areas like Cabo where the entire infrastructure is tuned to a different standard and so the bubble is bigger.
It is less understandable in Todos Santos where gringos with a bucket of money buy houses that back up to lots full of trash on streets ruled by barking dogs. Or clusters of beach homes so far out of town you can't walk to anything other than the beach.
Having said all that, there is no upside for those who only blog about the risks, i.e. yours truly at the moment. The upside is in the action, right?
Like our American friends who live in Baja and have 3 rentals. They lost a lot of money, no, not in Mexican real estate, but in the 2008 stock market crash in the good ol' USA.
This was just as they were getting ready to retire, so they had to figure out a way to get some cash flow going. Three houses in Mexico (plus the one they live in) sounds to me like way too many toilets to keep flushing, but they are energetic, positive and smart even as they are approaching 70.
The diversification means their overall cap rate is 7% even with one tenant who is not paying full rent and hasn’t for months. They talked to their attorney about eviction, she said it would take a year to go through the process and once you serve notice, tenants will quit paying rent and there is nothing you can do until it is resolved.
Her advice was to slow walk repairs. I’ve seen the house, it’s too bad because it’s a sweet house with a beautiful small pool area. It must be hard for them to watch it deteriorate. But if they keep up with repairs, the current people may never leave.
Suddenly, AirBnB seems more attractive once again. At least with AirBnB, if you have a vampire guest, they will be leaving soon, if not, they have no legal recourse if you hire your large primo from La Neza to go forcibly evict them.
If you have a vampire renter, they get their hooks into a lease and hang around as long as possible. To get them out you have to pay an attorney (one source paid $110 an hour) and navigate the Mexican courts.
On the way back to the car, we stop at the C store to buy a Corona, with no clam juice, to share in our air conditioned car. I tell Sergio OK, my guess is that the house is about $250,000. His eyes get wide. I googled the listing (oh the wonders of google).
I’m nowhere even close.
The asking price is $349,000.
Sergio said, wow, I could live on that the rest of my life.
And with that, we toast to Giovanni’s future and head back to Todos Santos.
La Paz doesn’t usually make the glitz list for Americans vacationing to Mexico. Even though a couple of the richest American families (Walton and Getty) have homes in the La Paz area, Cabo San Lucas tends to steal the mainstream spotlight, and Todos Santos is enjoying an extended Instagram-fueled ride as a trendy offbeat destination.
Tourism is important here but it is not the only game in town, so La Paz retains a bustling down-to-earth working class vibe that is missing from luxe Cabo and certainly from sleepy Todos - at least the bustling part.
We have found ourselves heading into La Paz more often this trip and I’ve grown to like it more and more.
The older historic part of town retains many old buildings and happily hosts a (mostly) organic farmers market on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The inevitable cathedral is down this way, as well as a few streets with a local vibe from the traditional mercado and cool small businesses, many started by young people.
Today we are making the rounds looking for our first postcards for our inaugural Postcard Patron Society mail out. I asked at the Allende bookstore and the owner there directs me to the Galeria Casa Parra down the way.
We didn’t find any compelling postcards in the Galeria, but we did meet Claudia, the owner, and checked out a fabulous selection of handicrafts. Even though I’m not a big shopper, (I don’t want a house someday that looks like a cruise ship gift shop), I’ve seen a lot of Mexican souvenir stores, and this one is a good one.
If you are a big shopper, you have to be careful in the bigger markets and tourist areas, and I’m not just talking about keeping your iPhone on the down low. Lots of merch for sale in the tourist areas in Mexico is made in Guatemala and even China and India.
That right there tells you something about global wages, that it is cheaper for Mexicans vendors (who don’t make much, either) to import handmade items from other developing countries and resell them.
The Galeria Casa Parra’s offerings are 100% Hecho en Mexico, and even though I am very tempted to buy at least 7 things in the shop, I remain on task - which is sourcing postcards.
As we leave the store, I’m wilting a bit so we decide to regroup over an iced coffee at my favorite coffee stop in Baja so far, Doce Cuarenta
Doce Cuarenta is an excellent coffee shop with some super cute Baja swag in one corner, various trendy coffee doodads (Chemex, anyone?) in another, good food from a real kitchen, and real-deal AC, not always a given in this part of the world, where sometimes "air conditioned" is open to interpretation. We order our coffee at the counter, snag a table in front of the window and plug in our phones.
While we are waiting for our brew, I go over to the gifty corner. Our house sitting hosts have a coffee mug from this shop; we accidentally broke the handle the first week we were here, and I want to replace it.
The broken one will join our other two ceramic travel mugs that lost their handles along the way - one from a Goodwill in Santa Rosa, the other from Montana. Our small group of handleless mugs fits our current pared down reduce reuse travel lifestyle.
While I’m there looking at the coffee mugs and contemplating buying a cool t-shirt I don’t need, I notice - lo and behold - postcards! Cute postcards of baja scenes featuring hand drawn art from a local artist. Gooooaaal!
Later, after our coffee and a trip to the grocery store, I am craving a lunch that does not originate from the Corn food group, the traditional starting place for most Mexican meals.
Spanish food is usually a good bet in Central Mexico so I decide to give it a try here. I google “Tapas” (and, well OK, “wine bar” also). I come across a nearby charming place, at least according to Google.
We arrive and sure enough, it is a charming, small restored adobe building, painted clean white with a palapa roof. It even says La Casita Tapas Wine Bar right out front.
We park the car under a tree, in front of a couple of vintage 80’s cars parked on the street. Sergio stops to admire them - the 80s is his favorite decade by far and like many men, he sees cars as a defining element of an era.
We walk into the restaurant and are the only patrons. I’ve gotten used to this here; even in Mexico City we would sometimes be the only people in the place. If possible, I like to eat when I’m hungry, not wait around with my tummy growling until the clock strikes a certain time, so that means we are sometimes early for dinner or late for lunch.
The waiter brings the menu and, given that it is a tapas place, there is a puzzling, extensive array of sushi. We think perhaps the business recently changed owners and there hasn’t been time to change the sign outside. (Not uncommon in Mexico, where "for rent" signs, for example, may or may not be true in the present moment.)
We ask the waiter and he says, yes, this is La Casita Tapas Wine Bar. I guess it just happens to have a generous helping of sushi on the menu.
Through talking with him we learn that we have a fun connection to this place we have never visited before.
On our first driving trip to Mexico, when we crossed the border in Tijuana and drove down the Baja highway, we celebrated our safe arrival in Todos Santos 3 days later at - guess where - the La Casita Tapas Wine Bar!
The La Paz location is the second La Casita. Both are owned by a Mexican chef Sergio Rivera who worked in the US and as a chef on a yacht before “hanging up his sea legs”, (as his bio reports) and opening La Casita Tapas Wine Bar in Todos Santos, and now in La Paz.
On a recent visit to the La Casita in Todos, we saw Sergio, on a warm sweaty evening, alternating eating with his family, jumping up to help his low-season short staff crew, taking orders, and socializing with patrons. There were fans keeping the air moving, the bartender came out from behind the bar to keep the drinks flowing; it was kind of like a private party. I love restaurant people and entrepreneurs in general that actually hop in and work alongside their staff when needed.
Back to the La Casita in La Paz, where there is La Air Conditioning, too - so we order some delicious rolls, cold wine, and have a lovely sushi lunch at the tapas place.
We leave and as we are approaching our car, we see a tall thin man with RayBans, a pink polo shirt, jeans and loafers with no socks. He is wiping down one of the 80’s cars with a hand buffer.
Sergio, who secretly wants to buy a bunch more “accessories” for cleaning our car, strikes up a conversation.
We learn that he lives in the house behind us, and he has 2 more vintage cars in his garage. His Spanish has an Italian accent. He is originally from Rome but grew up in the La Paz area.
We introduce ourselves and he says, “My name is Giovanni”. I think, of course it is.
I settle back to enjoy observing the conversation between a native Roman and a Capitolino from Mexico City, who proceed with an inordinate amount of hand waving, exaggeration, shrugs of the shoulder, and fine tuned kvetching that finally arrives at the inevitable conclusion that ai, life is hard, but what are you going to do?
Giovanni’s father was a builder and developer. As Giovanni was growing up, the family lived in Canada, Arizona and finally in La Paz.
I have run the gauntlet to get my 4 year residency card here in Mexico, and I can barely get my head around the idea of buying an inexpensive apartment here, let alone develop property. I marvel at how easily some people appear to flow between countries, doing business, making money, because the truth is, it’s a lot of paperwork, tax headaches and risk.
Giovanni is also a developer. After living here for over 20 years, he has an insider’s view about the local real estate scene. He’s a dream contact for me as I’m always curious about the health of the local market.
La Paz real estate took a hit in 2008 and never really recovered fully, due to some bad press, increase in local drug related crime, and the ascendency of Cabo San Lucas in the luxury second home market.
He mentions a small town near here, Triunfo, that is on the rise as a tourist attraction. He spends every Sunday there, showing a historic home that he bought years ago and has remodeled. We make plans to stop by the following weekend. I share more about our Triunfo trip in this post, leaving you with this teaser:
They say there are only 6 degrees of separation between each person on earth - would you believe me if I told you a tiny ex-mining pueblo in Baja shrinks the distance to one of the wealthiest people on the planet to only a couple of degrees? It’s an interesting example of the distortion in local real estate (and I would imagine, local politics) when a billionaire comes to town.
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It is warm and muggy, a hurricane is on the way, pushing rain ahead to the parched desert south of us. The sky all around Todos Santos swirls with gorgeous dollops of silver, gray and bruised-purple clouds, but not a drop of rain falls on the town. It is as if there is a black magic anti-rain shield arching over us.
The southern tip of Baja was an island unto itself in back in the days when the earth was much younger. The Sierra Laguna mountains were separated from the massive Sierra clan for eons. I wonder if those years as an island seem like yesterday to their mountain memory. Do the Sierras stretching north still consider the Laguna range an outcast for taking their solo journey?
Southern Baja’s history as an island may account for the “place apart” energy that still imbues this part of the world. Between the mountains, crashing ocean, desert, rising moon and setting sun, a sense of rhythm is palpable for those who spend enough time out of the car (or the bar), and in person with the land.
This time of year, nature is not that welcoming. Go walking too late in the day and the heat will beat the fire out of you, sending you into a mini-vision quest of sweat and discomfort.
You start to notice the small things. Odd muses show up.
Many times since I arrived I have thought of E.B. White, of all people. As a young American girl who loved books, he was one of my earliest inspirations. I reread Charlottes Web yearly until I was old enough to hide that fact for fear of being judged uncool by my friends who were getting into makeup and boys. Usually in that order.
Later, I discovered his This Is New York essay, which he wrote one summer in a cheap sweltering New York City hotel room. It still is benchmark inspiration for me in so many ways. I blame this whole Todos adventure on E.B., actually.
I think to myself, why does creativity seem to demand its pound of flesh? To live a more creative life, do we have to go through the artist garret gauntlet? Must we freeze in Paris or sweat in New York, or, in my case, the Baja desert late summer sauna?
For writers, even if being broke and starving doesn’t shove them into the arms of their muse, is there something else that makes us so damn restless? That pulls us out onto the road, the next experience, the discomfort? I think of Jack Kerouac and The Road. I confess, I have not read it. How can that be?
Anyone can enjoy Baja in high season. It’s a bit of a gringa badge of badassedness to hang out here in August and September, in a house with no A/C. Twice. (I say gringa because on a global scale, living with discomfort is not a big deal. At all. The majority of the earth's people who live in hot climates do not have AC. At all.)
I signed up for this experience, so I focus on being open and not falling into the universal trap of kvetching about the weather all time.
I’m at our kitchen table, shifting my weight around in one of the world’s most uncomfortable chairs.
That is actually what made me think of E.B. White in a New York hotel room, sweating in his rickety cheap chair.
My chair is the complete and total opposite of rickety. If Fred Flintstone had a mountain cave man cousin who made furniture, this would be the stuff. The table I'm at is a single 7 inch thick wedge of wood from a good sized tree, it must weigh 400 lbs. The legs are literally large branches. It's actually very cool in a furniture performance art sort of way.
I think of Donald Judd’s cool and uncomfortable furniture in Marfa. I believe he would approve of the Cave Man dinette set. He would approve of many things about southern Baja, in fact. The U.S. is lucky that he, and Steinbeck for that matter, didn’t come to Baja before they settled down north of the border.
The Cave Man chairs have seats that are also carved from 6 inch slices of tree trunks. In a passing nod to ergonomics, the seat has indents carved out for your butt cheeks.
Maybe the furniture maker was inspired by perfect nalgas gracing the Diana the Huntress statue in Mexico City - I know I certainly am inspired by her. Well, not for her nalgas, although they are a fitness benchmark to shoot for, or would be if I was younger.
The seat indentations are one size fits all, or one size fits many Mexicans. In any case, my one size doesn’t conform and my gringa butt is super uncomfortable.
Since I moved to Mexico, I have been stunned at how uncomfortable the chairs are here. Even in nice restaurants sometimes.
I have a theory that their Spanish Inquisition seating is a practical defense against 2 traditions.
One - restaurant waiters have to wait for you to ask for the check. It is considered very rude to bring it before you ask for it. If you visit from the States and you don’t know that, it will make you crazy until you figure it out.
Two: the “mi casa es tu casa” tradition. Sure! Come on in and have a seat, my house is your house! Make yourself at home in one of our boulder hard Cave Man chairs or pull up a rickety cheap plastic folding chair and pray today isn't the day it decides to finally collapse.
Pretty smart, huh? Both options will have you hopping up to grab your coat in about 20 minutes.
Finally, painful chairs are also a preventive measure against unwanted housemates. In Mexico your kids have a lifetime pass to move back home. On top of that, any random primo (cousin) or sobrino (nephew) also have implicit permission to move in this afternoon and live on your couch until further notice. Comfy furniture definitely is a liability.
Today it is lucky for me that my younger self also read the story of the Princess and the Pea, so I get up and add a cushion to my cave man chair.
My sweet man sits is across from me. He just googled our blog and has question. He looks over his glasses and it strikes me anew how much he looks a subject from a Velazquez portrait - a 15th century Iberian philosopher, perhaps.
No, that’s a stretch. In reality, he looks more like a wily royal court official plotting his next move.
Velazquez shakes loose a memory from the magic time I spent as a docent at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. I first came across the painter’s work there and I spent many quiet moments in the galleries with the Spanish paintings, knowing they were telling me something but stuck as to how to translate it into my life’s frame. The message was something like
Why haven't you moved to Spain yet, hermanita?
But that was beyond my hearing range and instead I groped for a socially acceptable solution. I began to seriously consider going back to get my Masters in art history.
Compare the happy hour or holiday dinner reactions of family and friends to the following:
"I'm working on my masters degree" vs.
"Oh, we're selling the house and car and saving to pull the kids out of school and move to Spain next year, no, don't have any grand plans, we're going to figure out most of it as we go".
See how this works?
It would have been the perfect cover story so I wrangled with the idea but never even applied, it seemed like an insurmountable challenge. I used to give up so easily back then.
Ironically, it was the requirement to achieve proficiency in a second language that seemed insurmountable.
I have zero regrets, it seems to be working out OK. Now, instead of being trapped in the frustrating dynamic of studying handsome latino men frozen in 400 year old paintings, I have the infinitely more interesting assignment of learning from the sexy caballero sitting across from me, en vivo, at the Cave Man table, looking like a Spanish conquistador come to life, googling “la vida wich wings” .
My heart has melted and not just because of the heat.
The fan we have turned up full bore in the open doorway is blowing in happy inane mayflies and keeping mosquitos at bay. My hair is up in a chula bandana and a bit of sweat runs down my back. The iPhone hums a Latin soft pop mix in a tinny way that reminds me of the AM radio that used to play in my grandmother’s Iowa kitchen every morning, along with the farm report, but sans the latin pop.
I feel EB sitting with me, maybe he’s got a glass of whiskey, I find myself wondering if I offer some mezcal, will he tell me all his writing secrets? I’m pretty sure Kerouac would, but as I haven’t read him, would I even want to know?
When I committed to house sit a few months ago, from my cool perch in Mexico City, there were practical reasons for it, yet there was something else, that I couldn’t fully articulate.
Does that ever happen to you when you decide on a course of action? It’s like that whisper in the gallery at the Kimbell - you can’t quite catch in the moment -
come closer so you can hear the story
This time I did listen to it and I remind myself of it everyday here at about 2:30 pm when the heat really peaks.
Not to be over dramatic, but the message was something like - this will be a crucible you need and will make us stronger. Desert clarity, heat, time to write, and also, my favorite part, animals to care for.
When we arrive, we discover there is a new a bonus kitty. She is barely weaned, a rescue from a litter dumped in the desert. I look at her and imagine what those hours were like - it couldn’t of been days, she would not have survived. Small, exposed edible creatures don’t last long out there.
Poor thing, what a rough start - the heat, no mama, panicked littermates, wide open sense of infinite space, strange smells, and above all a pervading sense of this is not good, not good at all.
When I saw her, I was surprised, but then not really. I thought, hello Little Teacher, you may be part of the reason I’m here or vice versa.
She’s fearless, active, and in the moment constantly, taking on the dog and already dominating the older cat. Like my Mexican, she doesn’t wear her rough start on her sleeve. She learned early on to keep moving, keep fighting and don't give up.
Do you ever wonder why we want to travel in the first place? Why is it a gillion dollar industry? I saw an interesting factoid recently from a study - it said that women reported feeling most empowered from saving money and travel, 2 seemingly opposite goals.
I can only speak for myself, and from comments of many other travelers I have come across in Facebook groups for women that travel.
It seems to be this: in a society that makes it very easy to hide from ourselves, travel is our soul's shortcut to getting us back on her path.
What does that mean? It sounds woo woo, I know. But it is actually very logical. As we will see next week.
Thank you for reading : )
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