The Music of Mexico (22)

When I flew to Cabo San Lucas for the first time, a kind man took me in his taxi to catch the local bus just outside the airport. I remember a woman smiling at me when I took my seat. The bus driver left the door open as he drove, dirt flying away from the wheels where the side roads reached the paved highway. I was a ringing bell, the loud music and the air and the open desert in the distance resonating through me. I was so filled up I cried. There were times when I lived in Mexico when instead it was all dissonance, when I counted music blasting from six different neighbors in crazed competition, or on the fourteenth day of the town saint’s festival when the rockets exploded nonstop, and after two weeks of it, my endurance was shot. I wanted to scream. But there is a cadence to a country, some etheric weaving of language and land, of custom and spirit, and our bodies grow used to this rhythm. We miss it when it’s gone.

vegetables in wooden bins at Mexican market

When I first came back from Mexico, Sortera’s family produce stand at the farmer’s market here became one of my comforts. I latched onto them as one of the places I could still speak Spanish. I remember when I was still raw, listening to their rapid speech, their lively, happy banter, their laughter, for me the undercurrent to everyday life in Mexico running through it. I would stand there choosing a head of green cabbage, or filling a plastic bag with yellow and red and green bell peppers, and let it all wash over me, both soothed by it and filled with yearning. The ambient sounds were wrong, I know, but if I closed my eyes, I could have been standing at my favorite produce stand in the tianguis in Ajijic, the weight of the cabbage heavy in my hand. The day I spent in Algodones, it was the song of the grackles by the river that swept me back in time. And later in the little town’s zócolo, part park, part plaza, I sat on a white wrought iron bench and let the familiar sounds cradle me, the taco vendors, the music cranked up from someone’s car stereo, the loudspeaker mounted on a passing car announcing some event, the occasional grackle. I closed my eyes and let the music of Mexico wash over me. Now I let the memory carry me back, let it ring my bell.


Refrigerator Blues (21)

When I moved into La Casa Azul, the refrigerator was filled with old food. It was sitting, skewed, on top of two old wooden pallets, and there was mold and rust everywhere. I threw out the food, scrubbed each surface with soap. When I brought its condition up with the man who handled the rental for the famous Mexican artist who owned the blue house, Umberto looked blank and suggested I paint over it. I didn’t let this mar my new dream home. The building was alive with color and light. I felt like I could spend the rest of my life there. I’d never felt that way before. When I moved into my current home, my landlord emphasized the importance of the hedges being watered, of my not interfering with the automatic timer. When I discovered the timer didn’t work, I told my landlord. “Do you have a hose?” he asked. Last year he stopped having the hedges trimmed, though I’ve fought for them to be done again twice now in the past six months. But the pyracanthas have been getting more and more bare, my privacy in my courtyard garden now more illusion than real. And then my refrigerator died, and he wheeled a “new” one for me upright down the road from around the block, rattling and bumping along the asphalt. My jaw dropped. I spent three hours cleaning it out and trying to get the marks out of the floor, only to discover it didn’t work anymore. It shouldn’t have been a surprise.

kitchen of La Casa Azul, door open to the patio, orange walls

But it wasn’t just the hassle of the refrigerator. It was cumulative. The hedges might be dying. Could it really be from lack of water? “Do you have a hose?” rang in my mind. “Puedes pintarlo,” Umberto had said. You can paint it. And before I left Todos Santos, the refrigerator stopped working all together. I didn’t even ask them to fix it. Things had deteriorated beyond that. I lived out of my two little ice chests. I felt helpless in Todos Santos, trapped. In the end I fled my beloved Casa Azul. I’ll always be glad I did, and I’ll always regret it couldn’t have worked out differently. When the wealthy Mexican artist refused to give me back the $700 he owed me from my deposits, the bad fridge was one of his reasons. The memory still brings me to wall of anger, the stone cold against my fingers. So when I found myself living out of my ice chests again here, I know the rest of this was at work beneath the surface. I was desperate to get away, out of all proportion to the circumstances. I threw myself once more into looking for a mobile home, contemplating buying a trailer, even looking at other rentals. But then my landlord gave me his refrigerator, and the panic eased. I am now soaking the hedges every other day, hoping they’ll revive. And I’m thankful I’m not fleeing. I know when the day comes, it will be hard to leave my enchanted courtyard garden. I don’t want it to come in haste, unsettled, my need to escape eclipsing everything. I want the peace of mind to cherish what I have through that last day, still obscured in mist, be it in two months or twelve years. If I could do it over again, I would stroll through the kitchen at La Casa Azul with all my gladness and all my gratitude sitting there beside my grief. I would run my hand against the orange wall, take in the sunlight and the colors and relive that last goodbye without the taint of despair, my clear heart cheering in a loud and grateful voice.

Where I Belong (20)

Today I cross the carretera, choose the little bus that goes through the village first. I like the little bus best. It’s more simple, more bare bones, has no curtains, no cushions. All the windows are flung open, and kids in their school uniforms chatter and laugh and shout. Older Mexican women get on with their heavy groceries, sometimes only riding for a few blocks along the narrow cobblestone streets. I like being drenched in the bustle. By the time we get back up to the highway again, things have quieted. The after-school flurry is over.

The bus heads west. I breathe in wet earth from last night’s rain. I settle into my seat. I am going again to the next town over, to San Juan Cosolá. The wind blows in, making straight dark hair dance against the backs before me. The driver has the radio up loud, and ranchera music washes around us like the summer air. In the midst of all that is familiar, that for all its foreign-ness has become home to me, I am overcome. It happens to me often on this stretch of road, a kind of Mexican enchantment, I think. But still I am surprised. I am taken by a big burst of joy to be living here in Mexico, joy washed by gratitude that makes my eyes brim.

glimps of Lake Chapala

I look out the window, my throat tight, my heart pushing against my ribs. I watch the hills, a swathe of color on my right. I catch glimpses of the lake in the distance on my left. My mouth is open now, my jaw loose, half taking it all in, half awe. I wonder if part of what overtakes me on these bus rides is that seated on the bus among these dark-headed people, I feel a part of things. We are in this together, this riding on the bus with the air rushing in and the music resonating in our bones. On the bus, I feel like I belong.

The Boy with the Scary Skin (19)

I walk down my hill to the carretera, the highway, two short blocks from my home. I never have to wait long for a bus here in Ajijic, only five or ten minutes. But I have yet to be able to distinguish between the different buses from a distance, the one that turns at my corner and goes through town, the one that stays on the carretera. So I get nervous waiting. I am self-conscious flagging down the driver, boarding the bus. I feel conspicuous, the one estadounidense in the midst of the Mexicans whose world this is. I place my coins in the driver’s outstretched hand. “San Juan Cosolá,” I say, flustered, sure every eye is on me, certain the driver is only tolerating my foriegn-ness.

But once I find a seat toward the back and settle in, I begin to relax. I’m on one of my favorite outings, going to the next town over to indulge in the waters, the natural hot springs, the balnearios. The bus continues west on the highway, and I wonder if I’ll see the two little boys today. I have asked their names before but never remember them. I am bad with names. They are brothers or maybe neighbors, best friends. They are little, wiry, filled with restless energy. The one the other defers to, the oldest, I think, has a terrible skin ailment that covers his face. There are patches on his arms, his hands.

I give them coins because they do not demand them, do not treat me as though I must, as though it is their due, and I must be rich because I’m from the United States. Usually I give them 10 pesos each, maybe a little more or a little less, depending on whether or not I have remembered to prepare for them. Once I gave the one in charge a 200-peso bill, just less than twenty dollars. I asked him if he would share it with his mother. I believed him, his solemn nod. I could feel the shock of it in both of them, but they didn’t say a word, didn’t betray any emotion, only in the still way they held themselves did I know what it meant to them. Another time I was walking up the short hill to the highway on my way home when the bus appeared. I was too far away, but I started to run. The older boy saw me and raced hard for the bus. He got the driver to wait for me. I could have kissed him. And the sweetest thing was knowing he hadn’t done it for the coins. He was only being kind, generous. He would grow up to be a good man, I thought.

I waved to him as the bus pulled away, grateful and touched by his gesture, and aching for the kind of poverty he knew, the kind that left him stranded in his skin, his old soul eyes meeting mine as I left him behind.

La Milpa (18)

One time when I did say yes to Mexico, I got to visit Rodolfo’s milpa, the one south of the carretera, the highway, just west of Ajijic. We rode the bus together, Ana and Rodolfo and their daughters Isabel and Mariane and I. Milpa translate’s literally as cornfield, but Rodolfo grew other vegetables, too. They were all nourished by the nightly summer rains. Every year at harvest they had a gathering at his other milpa, north of the highway somewhere. They roasted elote over a big open fire, the corn in their husks, drank tequila, danced. I don’t know how I missed it, but it breaks my heart now to think I may have passed it up. I hadn’t been there long yet, so I maybe I was too shy, but I know I would have done anything to get there in that second summer. But I left that year when the corn was still growing.

The milpa was a few blocks more to the south, between the carretera and the lake. We walked together on the country road in the late summer afternoon. I remember being transported when I followed Rodolfo through the rows of corn. They must have been twelve feet tall. It was another world inside them, all pale green light, moist earth and growing things. He brought us to a makeshift table in the distant heart of the field. Rodolfo picked a handful of pepinos, cucumbers, and washed them with a gallon of water he’d carried with him on the bus. He had a knife to slice them, and Ana produced limes and salt and chile. We ate pepinos picados in our little spot carved out from the forest of corn, and I remember being charmed and oh so grateful they had wanted me to come.

corn plant leaves with raindrops © Tomo Yun

It began to rain, and I licked lime and salt from my fingers. We grabbed everything and ran down the road, laughing, the rain coming down in fat drops, pelting us as we ran. Rodolfo led us to a half-built home a block away. We stood in an unfinished room while the rain beat down on the metal roof, nibbling on brownies I had bought from a cafe in town and crunching crisp red apples. I have always loved the sound of rain on a metal roof, the smell of the first drops hitting dusty earth. I was glad for the water going to the milpa.

Rodolfo talked about the half-built home, abandoned now. It belonged to a friend of his, and when he looked around, I could see in his eyes the way he imagined it in his mind, picturing it fixed up, livable. But Ana only rolled her eyes. She was not eager to live in the country. Over my dead body, she might have said. But I could see it, too, the place restored, the dream of it. Rodolfo and I looked at each other and smiled. Who knew?

[Cornfield photograph cropped from the full version, © Tomo Yun at Used with permission.]

Salsa that Sings (17)

Sortera gave me some extra ripe heirloom tomatoes at the farmer’s market Saturday morning. “¿Para mi?” I asked, surprised, pleased. She nodded.

Para salsa.

Ah, muchas gracias,” I said. “¡Que bueno!” I thought for a moment. I big grin came over my face, the child who has figured out something wonderful. “Tengo chips!” I declared, and she smiled back at me. What luck.

I was so glad she offered them to me again. The last time I had hesitated, demurring, suggesting she might want to make salsa from them. (So dumb, this one—of course she could have all the tomatoes she wanted. This was her family’s business.) I know I upset her. I was able to convince her I’d love to have the tomatoes. But in Mexico there should not be any hesitation, only the resounding “Yes.” You accept all that’s offered.

I’m not sure I could ever learn to do that. I know when I lived there I turned things down, begged off because of my work, my lack of time. On New Year’s Eve in Todos Santos, I called Iris to tell her I wouldn’t be coming to their family celebration after all. I felt terrible about it, but I didn’t want to drive past all the bonfires in the streets, through all the fireworks. I was afraid, hid out at home instead. In Ajijic, I turned down more than one invitation to visit my neighbor Ramona, though I don’t think she ever took offense. I think I may have even bowed out once from attending the harvest celebration at the milpa, and I’d undo that in a heartbeat now if I could.

The truth is I was working a lot–too much still then, I think–so much of my time in Mexico spent at home, hunched over my laptop. Though that work allowed me to be living there, so my lament can’t be too strong. Still, I regret not learning more, not leaving with more knowledge, not bringing back more concrete memories. I wish I’d asked Ramona to show me how to make salsa in her molcajete, her basalt mortar. She worked for hours in her dark kitchen, making almost everything from scratch, filling the traditional female role for her big family. She would have been happy to teach me, I think. It would have given us something to do together, too, would have been better than our awkward but heartfelt greetings, our shy but regular exchanges of small gifts, our attempts at chatting when I say with her family in their living room.

And Rodolfo would have permitted me to watch him cook, I’m sure. I know he loved for me to get so much pleasure from what he prepared. I could have learned how to make pipian from a master. And when I made salsa from Sortera’s tomatoes now in my southern California home, even if I made it in the blender, it would sing to me of Mexico. Instead, it makes me miss it more.