"I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand." - Chinese proverb

Monday, January 25, 2010


BAJA, October 1997

Kurt and I have been ramming around Baja all day. First we take a wrong turn at the border and end up in downtown Tijuana. Anything and everything that comes into your mind when you hear “downtown Tijuana” is true. It is very hot; I thought verdigris and watermelon were the official colors of Mexico, but Kurt says they start out Christmas red and green, they just fade in the sun. There are car horns beeping and the smell of diesel – which I always find faintly rousing – there is Spanish music and people shouting and moving, and food frying in cool corners, and barefoot, darkly beautiful children darting in and out of traffic, offering you Chiclets, catching whatever coins you can throw out at them. You think it’s going to break your heart, seeing these children, and it does, but not as much as you expected. It’s like your heart is protected here.

We get onto the toll road along the coast, and stop in a bodega to buy bottled water; across the street, on sunburnt hills under one lonely palm tree, a solitary figure sits on horseback. The women storekeepers stand outside wetting down the dusty entryways with fine mist from a hose. “Keeps it cooler,” Kurt says, and indeed, all over where we’ve been in San Diego County you can stand in misters and get cooled off, and the water is so fine it doesn’t fog your eyeglasses up. A happy looking Tecate truck is parked next to us in the lot. It feels like Christmas. Kurt takes a picture; I will use it for cards this coming December.


Along the coast road en route to Ensenada, we stop to stretch and look out over the ocean. On our left, cliffs rise up sharply (part of what mountain range, I wonder?) Some places have decayed shacky looking dwellings dotted in amongst the dips here and there, like crumbling mosaics. (After El Nino, three months later, some will slide away with the mud.) I marvel – how would I ever find my way around here, especially in the dark? On our right, the cliffs lurch steeply toward the ocean, a long way down to a brilliant blue that stings your eyes – Kurt points out a small olive grove and the caretaker’s tiny hut.

I look backward and ahead. The road we are on looks like the ones you might see in a car commercial – breathtaking, curved and dangerous. This is the time of Santa Ana, the “devil wind,” and there are fires everywhere, smoke chokes the air. “In Mexico they just let them burn,” Kurt says. We see an Angeles Verde truck go by – “no callboxes, but those Green Angel guys, they’re out there for you,” says Kurt (no callboxes in Connecticut either, and certainly neither Green Angels nor Highway Patrol).

We have gone past ancient missions and cheap hotels squeezed in side by side. In Ensenada, we drive up an unrealistically steep hill to a parking lot where there is a building with dirty toilets and a sole attendant. Ensenada is undergoing a renaissance – it’s a cruise ship stop now – sidewalks are being dug up and replaced, tacky tourist shops are transforming into high-end stores selling ornate marble sinks and expensive leather. Still, everywhere, the barefoot children, and the long-haired, toothless South American women who “live right on the sidewalks,” says Kurt, who run after you, some nursing babies, holding up hand-strung bead necklaces; he throws them a dollar here and there but finally says “No dinero – sorry – lo siento – no dinero!” They give us dramatic expressions of gratitude. “Jeez, if I could,” Kurt says, “I’d be like Jesus Christ and give all I have.”

All around us signs for pharmaceuticals – “you can pick up anything you want,” says Kurt. “You wanna lose weight? You want some fen-phen?" I want to buy a Cuban cigar for a friend. In the first store we come to we find them. I am thinking of standing at Mile Marker Zero in Key West, where on a clear night, you can see the lights of Havana. I am congratulating myself for following Hemingway’s topsy-turvy footsteps three thousand miles. “No problema en la border?” (or something) Kurt asks the well-dressed proprietor as I pay. He looks surprised. “Si,” he says, “es problema.” But what does he care? Kurt, on the other hand, is nerved up. “I hope this guy you’re bringing this cigar back for is worth it,” he says. “You could do time for this, you know.” Me? Not me! Not the blessed and protected! What could I have done?

While I wait, resting, on a bench, Kurt goes down to the fishmarket and negotiates a kilo of freshly caught camarones – shrimp – which we put on ice in the trunk of our car. While he’s gone, whole families (but minus the men) swarm around me, pleading; when they see him coming back, they scatter like broken beads. We give the parking lot man five dollars. (This is more than some police officers in Mexico get for one day’s pay.) We stop for beers at a scruffy little cantina on the coast road. A weathered, oddly ageless man next to me on the stool asks me how I like the area. “Love it,” I say. “Have a few more beers, you’ll never leave,” he says. He tells Kurt he lives in San Diego in the summer and brings his camper down to Mexico in the fall. San Diego is not enough?

One of us notices a bumper sticker on the dirty window of the bar: “Jimmy Buffett for President.” Kurt jumps up suddenly, points out at the ocean – “Is that a whale?” he asks. The weathered man shakes his head. “Too early yet,” he says. A couple of young Mexican boys play pool on a tipped, peeling table. Two middle-aged, very tanned American women drink something with ice in it a few seats down. “Taking a big chance,” says Kurt. Out back, in the parking lot, where remarkable flowers climb from the dirt and charm me, is a characterless car with fins, a dark young woman slumped in the driver’s seat, head down, feet plunked sideways on the gravel, muttering.

More Green Angels on the way back. Around dinnertime we stop at Puerto Nuevo, a kind of Mexican Provincetown, lovely. I buy some T-shirts from a storefront after finally getting up my nerve to say, “What’s your best price?” The short heavy owner drips gold jewelry. “Hey man,” says Kurt, “You can’t be affording all that gold selling T-shirts all frigging day. What’s the story?” The man deadpans, shakes his head pitifully. “I work and I work and I kill myself, my T-shirts are the best in Baja, and still my wife she says I do not make enough money. I am never bringing home enough money to please my wife. Not to mention my homosexual!” We double over.

We go into Louis’s, a restaurant halfway down a steep hill. It’s light and spare in here – almost sterile. The tables are covered with clean oilcloth, a few nondescript posters on the walls, a ceiling fan. The waitress brings us one menu, which we pass back and forth and finally stand over one another’s shoulders to read. “See that sink in the corner?” asks Kurt. “You go over and wash your hands there and then you use your hands to eat the fajitas with.” When the food comes (we see it being cooked) he shows me. A big family comes in, a young girl dressed very formally in white lace – they all sit around the biggest table, handsome, festive, excited. “There is a ceremony,” Kurt says, “Quinceanara – when the daughter turns 15 – if the house is too small they all go out to a restaurant.” The sun shifts outside under a cloudless sky and a breeze blows up from the water, dries the sweat on my face.

"I know how I can get that cigar back over the border,” I tell Kurt. “I’ll roll it up in a bandanna and tie it around my neck and let my hair down in back – they’ll never find it.” “They’ll never find it in your purse, either,” says Kurt. “You just throw it in there and if by some crazy chance they search you you say you didn’t know it was against the law.” We hear music – a mariachi band is coming down the street, stops into Louis’s and surrounds the big family. For not long enough, I think; you are living this, not watching this, I think; much later, I will think of a quote by Aaron Rose in Orion magazine: “In the right light, at the right time, everything is extraordinary.” Kurt, I realize, is watching me. “What?” I ask. “You are doing that perfectly,” he says. For a moment, I have forgotten where I am, who I’m with, what I am doing.

We will go back to the real America now, we will cross the border where the drug smugglers’ cars sit confiscated, neatly parked in rows, where people at once hopeless and sanguine wait upstairs in a building, wait for days – sometimes weeks – for legal passage, and the nuns shake collection cans at you and vendors hold up their wares in the spotlight for last minute impulse buyers. When the sun sets equatorially in the Pacific, Kurt makes me stop in a field to watch it, shows me the secret of the Green Flash. “Horse Latitudes.” That’s how far down we were, into the Horse Latitudes, and there was a calm there, not a frantic, complex, conjectured calm, but satisfaction and composure and acceptance of a sort. It is seductive, just-born, and clean. It is outside me now, but when I need it, I do everything to bring it back.

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