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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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