The house (and animals) we are caring for sits on a corner lot in the local barrio in south Todos Santos, not in the gringo developments to the north.
It is a traditional Mexican home, and no, I'm not referring to the Hacienda tradition. The house is a solid, squat single-level concrete box with a nice wide patio on 2 sides. It has survived about 30 years of hurricanes, an important advantage to note when one is house sitting during hurricane season.
It is not fancy by US standards, but with 2 bedrooms, a sala (living room), an entryway, a large defined kitchen, and generous assortment of windows, it's a nicer house than many in this local's barrio section of Todos Santos.
I say "defined" kitchen because, in many of the starter houses here, the layout is basically one room to live in and a bedroom or two. The kitchen is over in a corner where it was easiest to put in plumbing, and a bathroom is usually somewhere on the other side of a wall from that, even if it means the door to the only bathroom in the house opens out onto the living room.
Depending upon where the electric outlets are, the fridge might be next to the couch, you never know. And why not? This makes for easy access to the chelas (beers) while watching futbol on the big screen that invariably dominates the small room even in some of the smallest homes.
I'm kidding, sort of. The starter house is very common because many people add on to a house as you go. Mortgages are not readily available here. There are no personal construction loans, building codes or permits for adding onto personal property.
For entrepreneurial families with a little extra room on their lot, this freedom of construction is a boon. I have seen small tiendas, salons, tiny restaurants, and even auto repair businesses sprout up in front of the main house.
If you can afford the bags of Cemex, re-bar, chelas and tacos for your crew and electrician cousin, you can have a house raising anytime. This is why you will see re-bar sticking out of the roof of one story homes all over Mexico - the house isn’t done yet. A second level is in the works as the family cash flow improves, even if that means 10 years from now
Our house is located on the last dirt road before you enter the desert just south of town. This is also the main road to the local’s beach, Punta Lobos. (Wolf Point).
After the sugar industry left Todos Santos in the early 1900's, and before tourism became a thing in the late 1990's, Todos Santos was a fisherman’s town. Many of the people here are from fishing families, and a core group of men still fish most days.
In the mornings and late afternoons, their pickup trucks roar by, sending a fine cloud of dust wafting over the whole intersection, including our house. We have no AC and the dust is so fearsome that I don’t dare unpack my iMac until I find a temporary office with AC nearby.
We walk Chiki, our tri-lingual Blue Heeler, every morning before it gets too hot. We see the fishermen's trucks drive by most days.
One particular morning, a middle-aged fisherman sits on an overturned bucket at the corner, waiting on his ride. He has on an old shirt, high water pants (a practicality, not a fashion violation), and ancient flip-flops. He is the color of a medium roast coffee bean. Has no UV approved hat, no sunglasses, and I bet there isn't any sunscreen in his extra shirt that is tied to create a makeshift knapsack, either.
I have no insider information, but my guess is there is a hierarchy social order among the fishermen - those with boats, and those with an upturned bucket to sit on, who perhaps help the boat owners with their launch or even as crew.
This is understandable - given the option of hanging around a hot dusty town doing nothing, or hanging around the beach sitting on your upturned bucket, doing almost nothing, with your fishing buddies - which would you choose?
I see him as I exit our yard gate with Chiki. An old pickup truck, blaring Mexican music and full of loud men, happy to be on their way to the beach, pulls up and stops to let the man get on. They are laughing and a couple of them stare at me. The woman who lives in this house is American, married to a Mexican, but apart from that, gringas are not common in this corner of Todos Santos.
I say Buenos Dias and get some very enthused responses. Sergio, who had run back to grab his keys, then exits the gate. The men in the bed of the truck look a little surprised to see him, too. My Meximan, who was born and raised in Mexico City, can size up a social situation in a microsecond and respond accordingly.
He unconsciously swings his Spanish to a more relaxed, slangy dialect, projects his voice over the truck noise and the music, and continues the banter with them. It is obvious we are visitors in this house. He’s sending a message that 1) we know the owners 2) I’m with him, and 3) he is friendly but he’s neither a clueless rico nor a country bumpkin.
I have a confession - I love to watch Mexican men shoot the bull. And believe me, they can pile it on, especially with an audience.
Notice I said watch, not just listen. Latinos cannot converse without moving, and their expressions, physical and verbal, are very entertaining when they move off center from the traditional, formal interchange.
Sergio jokingly tells them to bring back a fish for him. As they roar away in a cloud of dust and Ranchero music, they yell something inappropriate about his mujer and trading a fish for a fish and I don’t even want to know.
It is all good-natured. Innuendo aside, I am pleased about the exchange because often the local people here are guarded and do not engage in informal banter, especially outside of a store or restaurant setting. They are not unfriendly, but you have to make the first move. I feel like we’ve made a connection from our routine of walking Chiki, who is known to many of them.
The beach is where the fishermen and local families gather in the evenings, especially late in the week, when people escape their concrete homes that turn into little square ovens, radiating the day's heat.
The hipster hotel San Cristobal squats off to one side, keeping a physical and cultural distance for both the tourists and the locals. I learned later that the hotel is owned by the Lambert Group from Austin, run by Liz Lambert, an early pioneer in South Congress’ renewal / gentrification. Small world.
I read a blog post about the local’s beach, the writer said this was “hands down” his favorite beach. In the afternoons the returning fishermen drive their boats right up onto the beach. It is quite a spectacle.
It is also a scene that you have to be in the mood for. I grew up going to the beach in Galveston, with pickup trucks cruising up and down, 90% humidity, scantily clad sweaty people drinking beer, playing loud music, checking each other out. This is the same template, albeit with a Mexican flair; it isn’t that exotic to me.
Sergio has a hard time with it because the popular corner of this beach is dirty. Sorry if you have only read the rave reviews on other blogs about TS beaches, but it is the truth.
The parking area is strewn with trash, people leave their beer cans and chip bags on the beach in a puzzling lack of regard for the natural setting of their community. Sort of like Galveston beaches back in the 80's.
Todos in general is pretty trashy. Stray a few blocks from the Hotel California and you might as well be in any random pueblo anywhere in the world where people litter at will and trash piles up in the corner of vacant lots.
The first quarter mile of our morning walk is in the low part of the desert, easily reached by trucks that dump trash. In the days before plastic, stuff decomposed eventually. Now, the amount of plastic in the world increased exponentially in the last 50 years, and its a huge mess all over the planet. Organized waste management and individual respect for the commons has not caught up with the amount of trash we all generate.
Back to the beach.
One afternoon, we get a late start, heading out to catch the sunset. We come upon two young men bumping along the dirt road on cruiser bikes. They were obviously not Mexican.
There is a hostel up the street from where our house is and I am thinking that is probably where they were staying.
As we past, they wave us down. One of them says, in Spanish with a German accent,
Is this the way to the beach?
About a mile and a half.
I look at his hostel bike, a hot pink beach cruiser with a basket; it is more suited to the boardwalk in Santa Monica than this dirt road in Mexico. His friend has a similarly tricked out ride.
Do you want a ride?
We'll follow you back to the hostel to drop off the bikes.
No, its OK, we can just lock them up here.
I look at Sergio who is trying not to laugh. You don't just lock your bike up in the desert outside of Todos Santos, on the main road to the local’s beach, and expect it to be there when you get back.
I say, No, its no trouble.
We follow them back to turn in the bikes. They pile into the car. Chiki is elated to have new pack members to keep track of, even though she is now relegated to the very back of the small SUV.
The windows don’t open back there, so she pants happy hot stinky dog breath on our new friends, her head between their shoulders as she catches a breeze from the windows. The German boys are super friendly with her and our tri-lingual dog is soon learning a fourth language.
We arrive at the beach a few minutes before sunset. We walk a few yards down, past the main hubbub of pickups and families, past the raised platform and lounge chairs where the gringos at the San Cristobal watch the world pass by below them. The German boys run down the beach with Chiki. Sergio wanders off to explore a tide pool.
To each his own corner.
I sit cross-legged on my towel, lean into the mountains behind me, and watch the sky turn pink. The sound of the ocean blots out my internal chatter; waves crashing in rhythm with the pull of the unseen moon. For the next few minutes, I claim this time, place and space as my corner of the world.
(Just joining us from the newsletter? Welcome! Scroll down and look for the first blue sentence in BOLD after the photo, that's where we left off. )
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 : )
We are three hours into a four hour concert, I just had my 4th hot flash of the evening and am feeling slightly queasy. I’m in my seat at the end of a row, against the wall of the Auditorio Nacional, Mexico’s national performance hall, a gigantic space that seats 10,000 people. The show is sold out.
Sergio asked me last week to a concert for Valentine’s Day. It features four singers from the 1960s that he and his dad used to listened to, apparently quite often because he has a whole catalog of old songs memorized.
I’m happy with my wallflower perch as it gives me a view of 9,999 Mexicans all at one time, including my sweet man beside me. The wall space on one side balances out claustrophobia on the other as I realize exiting the row will not be easy.
I’ve worn very cute, impractical platforms which make me look 6 feet tall, which is great. They also make me totter like I’m on stilts, which is not so great. Getting to my seat was the final leg of a typical urban Mexico City hike.
We crossed busy streets, uneven sidewalks, climbed up multiple flights of stairs to our section, and finally finished up by navigating a narrow row filled with elderly senoras, most with a big purse on their lap. They gave me as much room as they could to let me pass, but the rows of seats, like most public areas in Mexico City, are maximized for capacity, not personal space. I barely had space to walk, in my platforms, in the dark, with nothing to hold onto, hoping I wouldn’t fall off the ledge and into the row just below ours.
I'm excited because this is my first time inside the Auditorio Nacional - an imposing venue built in 1952 that continues to perfectly complement the energy and scale of Mexico City. For architecture fans, it’s a must see. It is a strong, balanced huge modernist space; less harsh than the Brutalist structures of post WWII Russia and Europe, and with no trace of reference to Mexico’s colonial past.
Instead it’s a grand space for la gente , the people, a design with roots in the socialism that fed the Mexican Revolution and formed the genesis of many institutions and federal programs today - strong unions, bloated bureaucracy, compulsory military service for young men, universal (and evolving) health care and education.
We didn’t have any luck buying tickets ahead of time, so we decided last minute to try to get tickets from a seller out in front of the venue. We arrive outside the Auditorio and a seller approaches, assuring us that he has excellent seats in the middle. We all know he’s lying but it doesn’t really matter, we just want two seats together.
He then shouts to a muchacho across the way. There ensues a confusing rush of young men racing across the wide stairs leading up to the plaza, whistling to one another. Whistling is a common form of communication among men en la calle in Mexico, probably dating back thousands of years. Sergio’s son Jarkof still knows his dad’s whistle; they use it to get one another’s attention when we are out walking and have drifted apart.
The reason for the running around is to compare tickets and find two seats together. One boy, who looks about 10, comes racing up with a match; the muchacho who is handling the sale with us double-checks them. He gives me my ticket and tells me to enter the gate first. This will prove to Sergio, who waits outside, that the tickets are valid.
I enter without issues, feeling slightly shady. Sergio then pays for the tickets and joins me inside. Sergio is very frugal, he’ll compare prices for 20 minutes at the mercado to save 10 pesos on avocados. The cost of the tickets represents about 2 days of Ubering for him; I am touched that it meant that much to him to invite me.
Arriving in the central plaza, given the scale of the venue, you would expect to find banks of elevators to ferry guests up to the upper levels. You would be wrong. There are 2 small elevators and tonight one is out of service. In many older buildings in Mexico, elevators are more of a last resort than a main option.
The alternative is not bad. The building has long sweeping staircases that force you to take your time as you move upward through the space. I enjoyed the climb in spite of my shoes; unexpected urban obstacles like this remind me why I work out and keep me motivated to do so.
By the time we reach our seats, the first singer is about 2 songs into his set, with live backup singers and band. He’s singing old standards, the crowd sings along and applauds. I notice an annoying hiss that is too erratic to be feedback or static - its kind of like a high pitched Darth Vader sound. Soon I also notice that whenever he moves away from the mic, it stops.
I look at the big screens hung up above the stage. I can’t see the one that is along the same wall I’m up against, and the other screen is dwarfed by the distance across the big hall, but I think I can make out that he is wearing an oxygen tube. I think the sound is coming from him!
I try to follow along the lyrics and applaud on cue. He alternates between sitting on a tall stool and standing. He leaves the stage after his last song and lots of applause, taking the hissing sound with him.
I check the time. One hour exactly.
Uh-oh. I begin to get a sinking feeling I get sometimes when I'm in Mexico and I realize I'm about to enter an alternative Latino time space continuum. There are four singers on the program.
My gringa brain is in denial. NO way this could be a four hour concert. At the same time I know that resistance is futile and that actually, yes, guey, not only is it possible, but in fact it IS a four hour concert.
In the United States, we grab time by the throat on a daily basis and think that we can force it to submit to our agenda. In Mexico, time is considered something outside of your control, like a leisurely river that passes no matter what. If you get caught in a slowly swirling eddy of a long line at the bank, a friend who is 40 minutes late, a colossal traffic jam, or 4 hour concert that you expected would be 90 minutes, oh well. Que sera sera.
The second singer arrives on stage. He is in good form, with a balance of old school Sinatra chit-chat and singing. Near the end of his hour, he sings a heartfelt finale for the crowd of faithful gathered here - “I Did It My Way”- in English, no less. He exits the stage to great applause.
The crowd, thinking it is 5 minute break time, starts chatting and moving about, some heading for the restrooms. Suddenly the band starts up again as the singer re-appears to sing his actual final song.
It’s a bit awkward given that there had been no call for encore, but everyone adjusts and enjoys an entertaining cover of an old mariachi song in which the songwriter assures us that even though he may not have much, he is still the king, his word is law - and goes on to lament the absence of a queen in his life - go figure.
Third singer up, the only woman on the playbill. She tearfully confesses to the audience after her first song that she has been sick and lost her voice. The crowd rallies, begs her to continue in what became a pattern as she croaked along for her full hour, too. The back up singers (the same ones who were three hours into their four hour gig with almost no break) deserve double pay - without them, there would have been no 3rd performance, really. In between songs, the diva finds enough voice to introduce her entourage in the front row, including friends, relatives, and her promoter.
Then she returns to lamenting her lack of voice and saying no, no, I can’t go on, before giving in to the crowd’s supplications that she continue.
She’s obviously a beloved icon, but I found her to be self-indulgent and unprofessional - she should have either canceled her appearance or cut it short - both of which would probably offend her Mexican fans, as no doubt she knows her market better than I do.
I thought about this later. Why did I judged her harshly? It was more than just feeling increasingly uncomfortable hemmed into my seat. It is partly because I am a gringa exigente - a picky white lady - but it is also because she was full-out channeling the latina diva persona just like in the telenovelas. It’s a mixture of over-amped drama and emotional helplessness that disrespects how strong most Mexican women really are, and does nothing to help defuse the sexism they struggle with in most areas of life.
Finally she says goodbye, running from one side of the stage to the other, and not one minute before her hour was up.
Tres down, uno to go. The final singer comes out. We are in the home stretch with an octogenarian channeling Dean Martin, complete with off color jokes in Spanish and a glass of whisky off to the side.
In spite of not knowing many of the songs, I enjoyed the evening very much. It is fun to be dressed up, out in the city at that venue with my sweet man. He is so happy to be there - he is a big romantic at heart and sang along to many songs, including tearing up while he sang one of his dad's favorites to me “Eres Todo Para Mi”.
At my request, we leave about 30 minutes early, something I have always thought old people do, but not in Mexico, where most of the crowd stays in their seats.
Holding my arm as I totter down the long stone staircase, Sergio comments good-naturedly, “Ai mi amor, tu no eres por la carrera larga” - meaning, I can’t handle the long haul.
I say ”What? That was 3 ½ hours in the same seat!”
He just smiles as if he knows something I do not. We reach the bottom of the stairs, cross the plaza and walk out into the night, our long evening with los viejos reminding us that, if we are lucky, they are where we are headed, and every moment is more precious than the last.
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