Spanish lessons - With a Special Focus on Needlessly Dry Sarcasm
Normally, like just about every living human on the planet, I dislike being misunderstood. Regardless of whether one’s intentions are misinterpreted, or words are poorly chosen, or perhaps the other party isn’t listening particularly well, being misinterpreted sucks. However, being in a foreign country where the language is not my own, I’m coming to grips with not only being misconstrued, but with not being comprehended at all. I’m also enjoying finding creative ways to bypass language entirely.
My Spanish is not great. In fact, I often introduce myself into a scenario with the following phrase, ‘Disculpen, mi español es muy limitado’. The very structure of the sentence is enough to let most people know what I mean without having to interpret the meaning of the words. The patient and good humored people I’ve been chatting up have had no trouble understanding I will be somewhat difficult to understand.
For the most part, I’ve done my best to attempt to speak Spanish to everyone, including Tiffany and Pele´. Pele´ is so far not impressed. Our nightly game of “where is it?” (wherein Pele´ brings me a little tennis ball and I hide it in various locations in the van, asking him throughout his search, “where is it?”), has now become, “dónde está?”
In-spite of my poor pronunciation and limited vocabulary, I do seem to comprehend what people are saying to me. Mostly, it is a contextual understanding, but somewhere in my subconscious mind, I must remember the Spanish taught to me as a small boy by my babysitter, Ida and her husband, Jamie.
Jamie (pronounced, Hi-Me) and his lovely wife, Ida are from Colombia. I haven’t seen them in person in over a decade, but I have seen Ida in a dream-state, induced by a strong couple of puffs of Salvia Divinorum. I’ll tell you about that journey in a bit. First, I’m guessing if you are reading this on purpose and have not stumbled upon this while looking for something else, you are here to read about our travels, so I’ll tell you what we’ve been up to since we arrived in Baja.
Before we left San Diego, we spent a little time with a young woman I met in Bombay beach, Lauren D’Agistino. Lauren is involved in a CDB infused tea company called Lagom Tea, she is an illustrator, and is sweet, curious and fun to be around. We met her for coffee in the morning, then again after sunset. She was baking bread, and when we arrived at her house, she had a little gift basket for us. She gave us several little baguettes, a box of her company’s Tea, a few tea candles, and a small book of poetry called, “My Mother was a Freedom Fighter”. The bread was delicious, the tea is tasty and soothing, and the book is moving.
We took a short walk with Lauren along the canal which ends at “Dog Beach”. Tiffany and I are quite familiar with this canal, as it marks the end point for the cross country bicycle trip we took several years ago. It is also where we first met our friends Rory and Nicki when they finished their cross country bicycle journey. To be spending time with such a lovely person like Lauren on this particular stretch of land was symbolically rich enough for me. However, as we were walking back to Lauren’s home, a disheveled and somewhat mildly frantic woman approached us, and asked if we could help take care of a small raven who had fallen from its nest. Without hesitation, Lauren said yes, took the bird, and knew exactly what to do.
Ravens are my favorite animal, without question. They are incredibly smart, resourceful, they live all over the world, and they enjoy some of the very best roles in human origin stories in many cultures. To see one of these creatures being rescued by our new friend as we prepared to shove off on our journey felt like an auspicious sign. It was most likely coincidental, but part of me really wants to believe it is caries a singular significance for our journey.
The following day, as we made last second preparations, we were in something of a weird mood. A phone call with someone we know was somewhat antagonistic in tone, and while I’m certain it was well meaning, served to raise both of our anxiety levels to an unhelpful degree. The call was meant to discourage us from making the overland journey through Mexico, because it is dangerous.
We are tremendously grateful to have anyone so interested in our wellbeing and safety, and don’t want to make light of it. We simply have enough anxiety to go around, and are traveling light in both the material and ethereal worlds…there is no room at the inn for additional angst.
Our strange mood, while heavy, did not prevent us from taking care of shit at record pace for us though. We printed documents, gathered supplies, filled water, bought fuel, found a jerry can for extra diesel, sent out a few messages, and headed south and East from San Diego to the border at Tecate; making the crossing before Noon.
The drive from San Diego is beautiful. Rolling, high desert hills dotted with flowering yucca, cactus and ocotillo give way to sweeping vistas of river beds and grasslands turning from dull green to a high pitched and light brown. I remember this road from a journey I took in my twenties as I made my way to the trailhead at Campo, California to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. A sense of nostalgia eased the knot in my stomach as we got closer and closer to the border.
Tecate is an incredibly laid back place to cross into a foreign country. The border guard who stopped us and asked us to pull over for an inspection was super cute. She was about five feet tall, with long dark hair, large, shadowy and intense eyes, and long beautiful eye lashes. Her facial expression waivered between confusion, easy laughter, deep contemplation, and a complete willingness to drop the whole act and kick my goofy ass back across the border. She did all of this in combat boots, form fitting, black cargo pants, a bullet proof vest which clung to her like it was in search of protection from bullets, not the other way around.
She laughed at my sad attempts at speaking her language, and did not attempt to speak mine. When she decided we were free to go, I managed to convince her to let us park where we were so we could go to the immigration office and fill out the necessary paperwork for us and the van. Before I walked away, she gave me a grin and an unexpected high-five.
Sorting out the paperwork between immigration and Banjercito (the military run bank which handles the exchange of money at the border) was hilarious. I would suggest, if ever you wish to cross into Mexico with your vehicle, do so at a small border crossing, and relax completely. Don’t even worry about how filing forms, waiting in lines, printing copies, and providing proof of your existence on the planet makes you feel. That fatuous, heaving nightmare of useless bulk is someone else’s problem. Just let the madness and unrelenting tediousness of it all wash over you like the golden moments of an oncoming buzz.
We completed a variety of online forms, paid a few pesos to get a head start on the process, and felt completely prepared for any and all administrative mischiefs. We were proven wrong immediately. Our online forms were useless. We filled out new ones (FMM visa for a prolonged visit) in the immigration office, and turned them in. We then had to provide copies of our drivers licenses, passports, vehicle registration, title, and insurance (Mexican insurance) to the immigration officer. Tiffany would go out to the van, and bring back only the document the officer asked for at the time. He would then ask her for another document, at which point, she would go back to the van and retrieve that document. After the second trip to the van, Tiffany returned with the entire file folder we prepared long ago, with every stitch of pertinent information on us, the dog and the vehicle we rode in on. Of course, no more documents were needed once that arrived.
The officer, a good humored and silly sort of guy, told us we would need copies of a few documents. He told me I could walk over to the print shop around the corner, or he could print them in his office. I opted for the freshest batch of copies, and he walked me into another room where he said, “café for copies?”
I got the gist of what he was asking. He was looking to make a little cash on the side by selling office supplies to me. I gave him a few dollars and told him to buy a café for his amigos in the next room; three elderly and somewhat rotund security officers were lounging around a television on the other side of a wall of windows. The immigration officer looked incredulous and said, “Café por los GORDOS? No, Café para mi!” I couldn’t help but laugh.
We then took the bundle of weird shit he gave us back to the teller at the bank; who we had already visited, and were directed to go see immigration first. This guy was a cool customer. Not at any point was he bothered by our paperwork, our questions, my lousy Spanish, or any aspect of his job, really. He just spoke in a measured tone, typed into an old keyboard, stapled shit together, charged us some money, and sent us on our way.
We were out of there in less than an hour. When I walked back to the van, our cute security guard had been replaced by one of the “gordos” from the immigration office. His ill-fitting uniform and somewhat tousled style put me at ease. We waived goodbye to his teeth as they beamed at us from a giant, cracked-lipped grin, while the young man slightly behind him in full army fatigues held his fully automatic rifle at his waist, and nodded through his helmet and mirrored sunglasses. Balance, much like timing, is everything. As we drove away from the immigration compound, a line of cars, and motorhomes pulling trailers filled with off-road vehicles was beginning to pile up behind us.
Our destination for that evening was the town of Ensenada; specifically a small taco stand called Tacos Felix in the enter of town. We drove through northern Baja’s lush wine growing region. A surprising number of large and modern looking wineries and vineyards dotted the hillsides on the way south. We would have stopped and taken a tour, but we were running a little behind schedule, and wanted to get settled in Ensenada before dark, so we pushed on. If you live in Southern California and like wine, I would say take the trip down to Tecate and tour the wine country. At the very least, you will see beautiful scenery, at best you will enjoy good wine and be near enough to some of the best tacos your teeth can manage!
Tacos Felix in Ensenada is something of an avatar, or holy shrine for everything I love about Mexico. First, it is to be found on the street. Not in a building on the safe side of the sidewalk, not in a food truck in a parking lot. Not in a food truck in a parking space on the street. Tacos Felix is in a semi permanent trailer-like structure which straddles the sidewalk and a little bit of the street as well. There are two other nearly identical structures near by; marking a beautiful vortex of delicious and delectable treats on three out of the four corners of one block in downtown Ensenada.
Like driving in Mexico, there is no real line in which you wait to order. You walk up with your mind made up, wait for your opening, deliver your order with confidence, and wait for your food. At some point, someone will ask you for a little money, you will pay with a slight fear that not enough change will be available to complete your transaction, but some good Samaritan of a stranger will come through and have exactly what you need in his/her pocket. And, especially like Mexico to me, when the transaction is complete, you are certain to eat something delicious.
The frying prowess which crisps up the taco’s leading actors is second to none. The hand made corn tortillas are so fresh and delightful, I can barely stand to write about them without one nearby to calm my desire. When your small plate of tortilla and fish/shrimp are handed to you, preceded by a handful of change, you make your way to a mélange of toppings. A bowl of cabbage, a bowl of pico de gallo, several varieties of hot sauce, and two large squeeze bottles of cream and spicy cream are all available for you to dress your own tacos. There are smoked peppers, pickled onions, jalapeños and carrots, as well as a variety of salsas ranging from tonsil dissolving hot to tongue tickling mild. Tiffany rejoined the rest of the meat eating world at Tacos Felix, and ate her first fish taco in nearly four years! The tacos were so good, I ate six of them; two fish tacos and four with shrimp!
From my little corner of taco heaven, we drove down to the edge of town where we would be spending the evening. Many cities in Baja have long walkways along the water. They are called the “Malecon”. We were less than a block from the Malecon, so we locked up our van, and headed out for a walk along the bay.
Little did we know, there was a street fair happening along the Malecon. Vendors selling local dishes, tacos, candies, fruits, cheeses, clothing, and various gift items were all huddled together in a matrix of odd shapes. There was a small but permanent stage near the edge of the assortment of vendor tents. An equally odd collection of performers were emerging, it seemed, from thin air. Some were singing karaoke with background dancers, others were dancing in traditional garb to traditional tunes, others were doing their respective bits in a rotating order which I assume made sense to someone, but was lost on me. Mercifully, it didn’t need to make sense to me; I left expectation at home, and was free to just like it, for no reason at all.
We noticed an enormous cruise ship was docked not far from the Malecon. We expected to see throngs of tourists wandering around slack jawed, possibly drunk and definitely looking as out of place as Tiffany and I did. However, the Malecon was mostly free of other white people. The crowd was mostly locals.
Not long after we made it to the little festival, the cruise ship sounded its horn, and shoved of. The market, which was clearly geared towards selling to gringos, was shifting gears (in both price and in an energetic sense) to cater to the locals and other Mexican tourists who were there to eat, drink, and dance.
People were singing along with the performers, children were running wild, vendors were laughing with their customers, and I could not stop wanting to eat everything I saw. Tacos, churros, coconut smoothies, coconut candies, fried things I did not recognize but some other unnamed sense in my body knew the flavor of, these called to me like dock-side prostitutes to a horny longshoreman.
Tiff was not tempted in the least. Pele´ who I can always count on to understand my desire to eat lots and often, was just as interested in the offerings as I was. Somehow, I managed to not take on any indulgent food mistresses to sully the marital bliss found at Tacos Felix. I purchased a simple and singular cone-shaped mound of toasted coconut, and shared it with my beautiful wife as we meandered about on the Malecon.
That first night, the weather was perfect. A slight breeze filed the gargantuan Mexican flag which rose above the Malecon. Vibrant colors streaked the sky and surrounding mountains. Our first Mexican sunset took the fear and anxiety we had been traveling with, and dunked them into the sea like a child dropping a cookie into a glass of milk.
We spent our time in Ensenada walking from one end of town to another. We were rained on as we walked from the Malecon to the location of a Spanish Language school we were interested in attending. When we arrived at our destination, it turned out we had walked two miles in the rain to find mailing address of the owner of the school, not at the actual school itself. As it turned out, the actual physical address of the school was another two miles from our current location, and an additional two miles from where we parked our van.
No worries. We had the time, and the rain had stopped, so we headed for the second stop in our triangular tour of the city. On the way there, the neighborhoods went from somewhat impoverished to nearly completely destroyed over the course of about a mile. Intuition told us to turn around and head back to camp. We have traveled enough to know the difference between a look from a local that says, “oh look, another tourist” and “Oh shit, what is that lost looking tourist doing in this neighborhood”. One hates to judge a book by its cover, but when the cover’s title reads, “You can read this book if you want, but someone will take your wallet if you do!”, it is a good idea to have someone watch your back while reading at the very least. There was also the not so gradual increase in the number of homeless dogs wandering around, putting even our ever present pal, Pele´ on edge.
We turned and walked back towards the van, stopping at a little restaurant to have lunch on the way back. Another ship had docked at the port overnight, and the town was filling up with tourists. We were back among people with whom we looked like we “belonged”. Waves of somewhat goofy looking white people were flitting about, eating, shopping, marveling at the price of one thing, while contemplating the fairness of the price of some other thing. I suddenly felt a sense of shame for backing out of our walk through a sketchy neighborhood.
I didn’t feel ashamed because I thought I should have walked through it. I think we made the right choice. My sense of shame came from feeling so akin to the folks I was surrounded by in the “safe” part of town. I know safety to be an illusion. I know danger is not predictable. I know how to wrestle with my intuition, and I am usually glad when my intuition wins. Somehow I want to strike a balance though. I don’t want to put myself or my wife in a dangerous situation, but I also don’t want to shelter us in the “safe” parts of any given place either.
Cultural curiosities, piles of dog shit and the roaming beasts who produce them at their fancy, tasty taco mysteries, burning trash, strange music, apocalyptic sidewalks, wild toothed humans with beautiful smiles, dirty and outrageously happy children, crazy vendor hustles…these are not always found in “safe” spaces. These are found where being alive and living meet. In the dirty crotch of a city, madness meets with hope and shares a cup of coffee and a civil argument. When the promise of safety is something you sell to white people who are waiting for you after your bus takes you away from the most dangerous part of the city, you may have some wisdom to share with anyone willing to listen.
We will not be visiting dangerous places for the sake of indulging in the fetishizing of degradation and the impoverished. I will do my best to avoid obvious dangers, like crumbling cliffs, or neighborhoods of which we are warned or give us a bad vibe, but we will not shy away from the grubby, the dirty, the uncomfortable, or the dilapidated. There IS wisdom there, and perhaps some sort of portal into a potential future, should any one of our collective fuck-ups as a species finally land the right kind of blow.
We pushed on from Ensenada’s city center later that day to a beautiful hand-built campground overlooking the Pacific Ocean on one side, and large agricultural plots on the other. We were planning on seeing “La Bufadora” the following day. That evening we set out our chairs, threw the ball with Pele´, laughed as we watched him shy away from and growl at the local dogs, took showers, and watched the sunset on another lazy day in Mexico (for us, not most Mexicans…they work super hard).
Amazingly, this remote little place had fast Wi-Fi, so we were able to find another Spanish Language School in La Paz. We are enrolled, and are looking forward to spending a week improving our language skills. They even told us Pele´ is welcome to join us!
The next morning, we made coffee, and set up our yoga mats to stretch and sweat in the sun. We were soon joined by three dogs, cared for by the owner of the campground. The trio consists of two big females, Princessa and Valentina, and one small and exceptionally lazy male, Andrés. When the owner and I exchanged names, he laughed when I told him mine. I should note, when I introduce myself in Spanish speaking countries, I long ago quit saying “Andrew”, because anytime I said it, it immediately changed to Andrés. In any case, I kind of like it.
“Andrés?!” He said, “That’s my dog’s name! Ha Ha!”
It’s also the first name of the multi-named El Presidenté de Mexico, but I didn’t mention it, just in case bringing up presidents might invoke the one we left back in the Estados Unidos.
As soon as we set up our mats, the three dogs made their way over to see what we were doing and to give Pele´ another chance at joining the pack. The two females immediately began lounging on Tiff’s mat, and Andrés wandered off when he realized Pele´ wasn’t packing any heat (Pele´ was neutered when we got him).
After a fair bit of growling and running away from the big, powerful females, Pele´ finally struck up a conversation with Valentina. She was much larger and stronger than our little guy, but he managed to wrestle, and play with her for nearly half an hour. He was even able to deploy his signature move –an oddly forceful forepaw grip of the head or tail, followed by rhythmic pelvic thrusts. I can’t see this without laughing.
We checked out “La Bufadora”. It is basically a seaside cliff with a blowhole in it that spews sea foam when waves crash into it. Unfortunately, in order to get to “La Bufadora” you have to run a gauntlet of super-hustlers who line both sides of a one mile stretch of road between the parking lots (not free) and the cliff face. I think if you can make it to the end and back without buying something, you may win a prize…we bought a magnet and another anthill-shaped toasted coconut treat.
I may sound somewhat negative about the experience, but it was fun. I like practicing my Spanish in these types of environments. So far, the Mexican people we’ve encountered have been hilarious, and seem to like jokes. I’m hoping the classes we enrolled in will teach us Spanish lessons with a special focus on needlessly dry sarcasm.
From La Bufadora, we took the Trans-Peninsular Highway South to the town of San Quintin. We stopped for the night at a nearly deserted hotel called Hotel Mision de Santa Maria. The light but steady breeze which accompanied us when we left the Ensenada area grew stronger as we moved south. By the time we reached our destination, the gusts were up to about 35 to 40 miles per hour, and a steady 25.
Hotel Mision de Santa Maria was totally cool with us just parking our van in their enormous lot. All they asked was that we get a drink or a meal in the restaurant sometime while we were there. The hotel itself is fairly impressive. It is built in the old mission style, with high ceilings, open courtyards, large stone verandas, and a commanding view of the sea across a broad expanse of sand dunes and a beautiful white sandy beach.
There were several staff on deck, ready to serve any guests who may wander through. However, we are in Baja during the low season, which means most places are fairly empty. The cavernous restaurant was completely empty. We were the only people there who were not on the payroll. The food was, I imagine by necessity, frozen fish and frozen vegetables. Not exactly great, but definitely not expensive. After our meal, which we ate while watching an overdubbed version of a Star Wars movie, we took a walk through the sand dunes to the beach.
As I mentioned, the winds were intense. Giving them a top speed doesn’t really do it justice. We had to wear masks and our sunglasses just to be able to see and walk on the beach without choking on sand. The wind was literally howling, and the blowing sands blasted the exposed skin on our legs.
It drove Pele´ a little crazy. He loves beaches. As soon as we get near one, he runs to it and practically dances on the sand in joyful bursts. He runs at top speed after anything you throw him, and goes wild with sand in his mouth, eyes and snout. This beach, with its wild wind blown dunes, and harsh sand blasting, was tough for him to enjoy.
We tossed sticks to him, which caught on the wind and flew considerably farther than I can throw on my own. He ran after the sticks, crashed into them with all the normal gusto he could manage, spraying sand in little clouds as he pounced. However, on his return approach, his ears were blown back across his head, his eyes were nearly shut, and his little body had to struggle to gain ground as the winds pushed him back with a constant barrage of wind you could practically use as an exfoliate.
We spent the night in the windiest conditions I’ve ever experienced. It was almost like being on a boat, with the van rocking from side to side all night long. The next morning, the winds were still fairly strong, but we managed to take a long walk down the beach, facing the winds head-on on the way back.
We moved that evening to an actual campground called Celito Lindo. It was less than a mile away, but was located a bit farther from the beach. We met a few gringos, and had some more bad fish at their restaurant. The walk that evening was much calmer. After a day and a half in strong winds, a calm evening can feel magnificently tranquil. We watched the sunset from the beach, and slept as peacefully as two people can.
The following day, we headed to Cataviña to see some bizarre cactuses and some pre-colombian cave paintings in the desert. We stopped at a small restaurant, Taqueria Parcela 12, and had a fantastic lunch experience. The setup in the place was fantastic.
When you walked in to the restaurant, a small place about the size of a small barber shop, there are tables and a counter to your right, and to your left, there was an open kitchen. It felt like walking into someone’s home. On the counter of the kitchen, facing the seating area, about ten covered pots and pans are sitting on burners, turned down low enough to keep the food warm. The two burners closest to the cook were on full blast, and he was making something I couldn’t hope to pronounce.
For 100 pesos each, they filled our plates with whatever we pointed towards, gave us freshly made tortillas and a drink. The cook could tell I was enjoying mine very much and was eager to feed me as much as I wanted to eat. I found a new favorite dish, Machaca!
The drive to Cataviña was beautiful. The subtleties of the desert were not lost on us as we both wanted to stop often to get out and look. When we finally reached our first planned stop, a hike through a bit of the desert to look at ancient cave paintings, we were more than ready to get out of the van.
The temperature was somewhere in the nineties, and the desert around us was already pulsating with the heat…it will get much, much hotter as the summer goes on here. I am paranoid about snakes. Tiffany shares my paranoia. Pele´ might be paranoid as well, but he doesn’t quite know how to anticipate their presence. Fortunately for him, we can, and we did on this hike. Within five minutes of leaving the van, I had Pele´ on a leash about three feet in front of me when I spotted the thing. A young rattlesnake was slowly making its way to some shade in front of us. He was just around a little bend in the trail. Had I not noticed him, Pele´ would have walked right into him.
The snake never rattled, it never gave any sign that it knew we were even there. It just slowly made it to a little shady spot, coiled up, and relaxed in the knowledge that even though it lived on the ground in the desert, at least didn’t have to be afraid of rattlesnakes.
We, on the other hand, were freaked. We made our way up to the cave paintings with Pele´ wedged between us. I took point, and slowly and loudly walked up the trail, eyeing every bush, slightly curvy stick, or rapidly moving lizard with profound distrust. By the time we reached the paintings, I had calmed myself enough to crawl into the rock outcropping which had been protecting the paintings from the elements for thousands of years until modern idiots showed up and started touching them. Still though, seeing the familiar images shared by cave paintings all over North America never gets old to me.
That night, we stayed in another hotel parking lot, not far from the site of the cave paintings. This was another large, mission style hotel, but considerably more populated. We played with Pele´ in the grass behind the hotel, ate a giant bowl of guacamole and spent the night, dreaming of snakes.
We had our sights set on a beach day since leaving San Diego, but had been thwarted by winds. We headed to Bahia de Los Angeles on the Sea of Cortez, as we heard the weather there would be nice. As it turns out, the weather there was perfect.
Bahia de Los Angeles is situated at the end of a road. From the main highway which takes you from Baja de Norte to Baja Sur, there are a number of roads which soot off in all directions. The road which drops you into Bahia de Los Angeles is spectacular the whole time, but is particularly stunning when you crest the last bit of the mountains which separate you from the Sea of Cortes, and the shimmering sea greats you below.
We got to town, ate a few tacos, bought a few groceries, and headed to the place where we hoped to camp for a night or two, Camp Archelon. When we arrived, we saw a number of buildings scattered about, most with palm frond roofs, stone walls, and large, shaded seating areas with hammocks, chairs and tables. Several little hut like structures called palapas lined the beach. Palapas are somewhat round little structures with low roofs covered in palm fronds, and made from other locally sourced materials. These provide much needed shade, and a place to prepare meals, as you lounge about on the white sandy beach.
The bay itself is tucked in by mountains, and mountainous islands are dotted throughout the bay. The beach where we were staying ,when we faced the water, was about a mile long to our right, and many miles long to our left. The high and low tides were temporarily lined up with low tide at 6AM and 6PM, and high tide rolling back in at Noon and Midnight. The winds lined up with the high tides, and the sun just piled on top of everything from about 5:45 until almost 8pm. In other words, the situation, from a weather standpoint, was perfect.
When we made our way to the office, there was no one around. The place was empty, but definitely looked open for business. We had a sense that the owners just wanted you to make yourself at home, so we did. We picked a palapa, parked the van, and started to settle in. We made the right choice.
Within a few minutes, a woman who appeared to be in her early sixties approached us. She was smiling underneath a broad rimed hat, and was dressed and ready for work. The first thing which struck me about her was her voice. It was calm, soothing, and reminiscent of my childhood babysitter, Ida. She introduced herself as Bety, and told us to make ourselves at home. “ Just pay my son when you see him, but no hurry. Pay whenever you like.”
I spoke to her for a bit in my broken Spanish. She was encouraging, correcting me when necessary, and anticipating my missing vocabulary. I asked if she was a teacher. She told me, “No, I’m a biologist.” I was not expecting her to say that, but I was also not entirely surprised. Before she left, she told me the best way to learn the language was to speak in as much Spanish as possible. She told me, in Spanish, she would only speak Spanish to me from then on. She cleaned up the area around our palapa and moved on to clean up other little cabins and rental properties.
When I met her son, Antonio, I liked him right away. He was charming, intelligent, curious, and obviously very hard working. He said to me, “My mom told me you need to practice your Spanish, so Solomente Hablar en Espanol”. He told me a little bit about their place, and gave me some tips about the area, offered the use of his kayaks at no extra charge, and introduced me to his dog; a one-eyed pug named Elvis.
The story of his family and the campground where we were staying is fascinating. As a team of biologists, struggling to save a species of sea turtle from almost certain extinction, Antonio Sr. and his wife Bety, managed to change the culture in the community surrounding the use of the turtles and their eggs as a food source, and subsequently saved the turtle population while improving conditions for local fishermen. Theirs is one of the first stories of an environmental win I’ve heard in a long time. The family was also famous for discovering unknown facts about loggerhead turtles; namely the fact that they are born in Japan, swim to Baja, eat crabs for 35 years, then swim back to japan to make more turtles.
I wanted to have them on the podcast right away. Fortunately, before we left, we were able to record the two of them in their beautiful kitchen. You can listen to that conversation HERE.
Later on in the day, a gentleman and his dog were walking down the beach, and approached our camp. He was tall and thin, wearing faded shorts, a red T-shirt, a ball cap, flip-flops and sunglasses. He looked like I might look someday if I make it to 70. His little dog, a Scottish Terrier with a buzz-cut, confidently hopped up into my chair with me. I liked both characters right away. The gentleman introduced himself as Dale Smith, and his dog as Cooper.
Dale was curious about our van, and told us his phone was on the fritz. I offered to help him sort out the problem, and offered him one of our old phones (for some reason, we are traveling with 4 phones, only one of which is functioning). He was out for a walk with his dog, but said he would stop by again on his way back. I’m very glad he did.
When Dale and Cooper returned from their walk, we chatted a bit about the van, and then I followed him to his house to see if I could help him out with his phone issues.
Dale's house is about 25 yards from the high tide line, and faces the beautiful bay with a completely unobstructed view. His patio provides a lovely shandy spot for man and dog to relax with a view. Inside, the very first thing I noticed were the photographs hanging on his walls. There was a series of black and white photographs of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and Robbie Robertson, all standing around smoking cigarettes in an alley.
I completely forgot I was there to help him, and started asking questions about his photographs. After the first story behind them, I knew I had found the next guest for the podcast. You can listen to that episode HERE. As it happens, his phone works now, no thanks to me.
Over the next four days, we would take several walks with Dale and Cooper. We had many conversations with him about his early photographic career, the four books he has published (one of them, “The Draft Dodger” I managed to read in about 24 hours), living in Mexico, his travels around the world, and his daughter, Alice.
On one of our walks, we made our way back along the side of the bay which faces the small town of Bahia de Los Angeles. Along the surface of the flat, sandy beach, we could see a moving sea of red. It was hard at first to determine exactly what was causing the phenomena. As we got closer, we noticed the beach was completely filled with tiny, red crabs, all of them moving in roughly the same direction. As we looked down, they parted to let us pass, and filled-in our wake as we moved through their world. The effect of the moving crab blanket made the whole scene feel like the animal kingdom was preparing do either deliver a punchline, or spring a trap.
Dale also told us a great deal more about Bety and Antonio Jr. Antonio’s father passed away suddenly at the age of 61. Dale had just spent a month getting to know Antonio Sr. while researching a book on sea turtles when Antonio passed away. He told us how Antonio Jr. dropped everything he was doing to come help his mother operate the campground. He also told us about the future plans for the campground. All of this made the place we were staying feel even more special.
Watching the mother son dynamic between Antonio and Bety reminded me of my babysitters, Jamie and Ida. They have always been so proud of their bright and accomplished son, David. Watching the two of them interact, and specifically hearing Bety speak, brought up powerful emotion and memory for me.
As I mentioned, the last time I encountered Ida, it was in a dream-state induced by smoking Salvia Divinorum. If you were hoping to make it to the end of this travelogue without reading about a psychedelic journey, now would be the perfect time to stop reading. If you wish to join me, by all means, read on.
A few years ago, I visited a small apothecary in San Francisco. I was looking for mugwort. I use the herb to help induce more memorable, visually stimulating and altogether weirder dreams. I did not find any mugwort, but I did find something else which was guaranteed to make things memorable, visually stimulating and decidedly weird for me. I saw a package behind the counter which read, “Captain Salvia”. I was familiar with Salvia, as my friends had experimented with it when I was in my twenties. Not surprisingly, I had not been invited to join them during any of those excursions. As it happens, in the state of California it is completely legal to sell, possess and ingest this mystical plant.
In the culture of the Mazatec people of Oaxaca, Salvia Divinorum has roots in shamanic rituals which are meant to invoke some sort of congress with the Virgin Mary. Confused and somewhat muddled theologies aside, I had always wanted to try this plant, and purchased the package without hesitation. I also bought a small colorful glass pipe which would be solely dedicated to smoking it when the time was right
I took my small bag of salvia home, opened it, filled the little pipe with the greenish brown leaves, then put the whole operation in a drawer and tried not to think about it for nearly six months. Occasionally I would ask Tiffany, “Do you want to smoke that shit with me today?” She always said the same thing, “no.”
My little pipe filled with Salvia sat in that drawer, unmolested and largely forgotten for at least six months. Tiffany and I took a trip to Baja Sur for Christmas that same year. Our journey was beautiful, and played a role in inspiring our current journey. When we got back from that trip, I found myself, for completely unconnected reasons, listening to a particularly fantastic record by Dean Martin almost every morning.
On one of those “Dino” mornings, at about 7AM, almost completely out of the blue, I decided I would “smoke that shit today.” I laid out a meditation pillow, brought the pipe and a lighter over to a low table where I was sitting, restarted the record from the top, and prepared myself to smoke the plant which could possibly show me the Virgin Mary.
I had done some research on Salvia before this. I knew a few things were incredibly important. First, never do Salvia alone. Second, be sure to take a very deep hit of the plant, or the effects may not be as substantial or profound as you might hope.
Well, I was completely alone, as Tiffany was at work already (she left at 6AM). At least I remembered to take a deep hit.
Actually, I almost forgot the second part as well. I took a hit, and was holding it in when I remembered a large hit was necessary, so I fired up the lighter again, and inhaled as deeply as I could.
As I inhaled, “Dino’s” voice reminded me, “I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING, MORE THAN HALF OF THE TIME!”
I realized at some point, I was laying on my back. I remember stretching my arms, legs and spine, waking from a deep sleep. Slowly I opened my eyes. Looking down at me, in a vibrant nearly Sesame Street toned series of colors, was my sweet and lovely babysitter, Ida.
“Gooood-mooorning, sleepyhead.” Her voice sang to me in her beautiful Colombian accent. Seeing her there, my heart was afloat in a river of nearly impossible memory. We were in her home, the television was on, and cartoons were playing on the screen. I blinked my eyes, and it felt like it took an hour for my lids to reopen. When they were open again, I was sitting up, looking around at a scene I had not laid eyes on since I was a small boy.
‘How did I get here?’ I said, looking deeply into her large brown eyes for the first time.
She was the same Ida I knew from my childhood. She may have been close to 40 then. Her skin was olive toned, firm, yet somehow swirling with Technicolor patterns and peculiar geometry. In fact, every surface in the intensely familiar home was doing the same thing. The carpet, the sofa, the characters on the screen, the plastic and floral print cover on the kitchen table, and the side of her large refrigerator were all dancing with the same irregular and sparkling points of movement.
“You were sleeping, silly boy. It’s time for lunch!” Her voice was unmistakable to me. Ida was in front of me! Young Ida, no less! No grey hair, fewer wrinkles, the same stern yet forgiving face; smiling at me with the love and sweetness I remember so well.
‘Where is my wife?’ I asked her. I was starting to feel a powerful sense of dread and a growing sense of things being not entirely O.K.
“Your wife?” She said in a surprised and joking tone. “Ha! You were sleeping pretty hard Andrew (pronounced Ahhn-dru)! That must have had some dream!” She was practically laughing. It wasn’t a malicious laugh, but the sort of laugh one couldn’t help but make when a four year old wakes up from a nap and demands to know where his wife is!
‘No, I was just in my home in California. My wife, she was just here. My house, my things, where are all my things?” I was on the edge of sanity. A cold and dispassionate fear gripped the bottom bit of my heart and the edges of my stomach. It wasn’t painful. It was terrifying.
“Andrew,” she said in the warmest and most delicate tone she had yet spoken to me. “You are in my house. Your mom brought you here this morning on her way to work. You took a little nap, and now it’s time for lunch.”
I could hear a song playing on the television. The singer was saying, “I come from just the other side of Nowhere…”.
My eyes were darting around the room. The familiar old room in her home where I spent so many hours of my childhood. I stood up, walked over to the couch, stood in front of the hallway which led to the bathrooms and bedrooms, then made my way to the front door.
I had a wife, I thought to myself. I had to get back to her. She would come home and I wouldn’t be there. She wouldn’t know what happened to me. I headed towards the front door of her house.
“Andrew”, Ida said to me in a still sweet voice, but with a bit more stern tone, “you have been asleep and dreaming. Whatever you thought was happening was just a dream. You are a little boy, I am looking after you while your mom is at work, and it is time for lunch. Your ‘wife’, your ‘home’, your ‘things’, these were all just a part of a dream, Andrew. When you wake up from dreams, they are over.”
“…Just the other side of Nowhere” the singer continued.
I couldn’t accept it. I remembered something…yes, I remembered I took something, and I woke up. I had to get back to that dream. I didn’t want to be a little boy again. This world was too strange and moving too much. I suddenly missed my world, my dream! I missed it so intensely I found myself ready to move a mountain one stone at a time in order to get back to that dream. I pushed open the front door.
What greeted me on the other side of that door was nothing short of mind-dissolving. The swirling-Technicolor aspects which had danced in a measured way across the objects in Ida’s home and which had played so delicately on her lovely face, were now writhing in a chaotic and violent fandango on every imaginable surface. Trees seemed to be singing to me in Dean Martin’s voice, morphing the lyrics “You’ve walked out the front door of your life…Ain’t no goin’ back once that drink is empty.”
The earth below my extended foot was rising and crashing like waves made from wood decking. Below my outstretched foot, a green and vicious insect with many arms which came to needle points was pulsating, waiting to impale my little four year old foot. The very air I was breathing was a tapestry of eddies and vortexes of nearly infinitesimally small creatures which were singing the harmonies and repeating the chorus, “I come from just the other side of Nowhere”.
I somehow managed, with what felt like a monumental effort, to pull myself back into the house. Ida was seated at her kitchen table, and was no longer looking in my direction. The house was pulsing crazily. I closed my eyes, crouched down to the floor, put my hands behind my head and thought of Tiffany.
Yes, Tiffany, that was her name. My wife. I could remember her name. I could see her face. Eyes, beautiful, like the little azure lakes under the surface of one of Saturn’s moons. I could picture them. I remembered our little house, it was an RV. I had a car. She had one too, and a job, and we had friends, and our dog had died, and I missed my dad, he was dead too.
I opened my eyes, and I was back in my RV. I was back in California. I was a man in his thirties. I was home, I was standing in the kitchen of our little place, leaning my weight on the counter by the sink. I installed this sink. I fixed that shower over there. I needed a shower.
The last lines of the song rang out, “Just the other side of nowhere, goin’ home”, it was over.
Throughout that episode of outrageous psychedelic floundering, I had been wandering around my little house, imagining myself to be in Ida’s home. Somehow, I dropped a flip-flop outside of the front door, but managed not step on the incredibly sharp agave which was to the right of the open door (a green and vicious insect with many arms which came to needle points).
So, perhaps I did see “The Virgin Mary”? She visited me in a form which my mind thought I could handle, although I couldn’t. I can not imagine a softer landing for someone seeking to explore the depths of one’s psyche. I was gently greeted by one of the most comforting and lovely people I’ve ever known, and was welcome to ask any question, wander anywhere I chose, or explore anywhere as long as I stayed inside that home.
Instead, I retreated to my attachments, pining for the comfort and security of my home and my wife. I missed an opportunity to learn something. I don’t want to miss an opportunity like that again. I will seek a guide. I will not be alone. I will not run from my fear. And I will absolutely not listen to Dean Martin.
A patient lady and the giant man-child who loves her.
Our current journey is an extension of that same metaphysical journey. We are seeking and meeting guides along the way. Our path has been replete with surrogate Virgin Mary’s, Sancho Panza’s, and even a Don Quixote or two. We’ve seen our old friends dressed up in new forms, we’ve danced with painful memories in their beautiful masks, and we continue to tiptoe along terrifying cliffs, wondering if those are rocks below, or harmless fields of marshmallow.
We are moving further South, deeper into Mexico. Baja California, Sur awaits. Until then, I wish you all the very best in waking life and in your dreams. I also hope you have no trouble knowing which one is which.