Young corn plants growing, bright green shoots unfolding into leaves that bend and curve, little beings in the moist dirt. I don’t think I’ve ever met a happier plant than corn plants. But maybe in part it is the way they grow together that makes this true, that they sprout up in kinship with the other corn plants around them. Maybe they are happy because they are in community. Today they make me think of the brown pelicans gathered on the broad, sandy beach outside Todos Santos in Baja California Sur. They stood upright, too, in clusters, alert, their kind eyes watching me, old souls. Maybe corn folk are old souls, too.
When I first moved to Todos Santos I bought my produce from a place on the main drag, the road the two-lane highway became as it zagged through town. The woman there was never kind to me, a rarity in Mexico. I annoyed her with my questions and my faltering Spanish. She answered me in a sharp, curt voice. She looked at her friends, rolled her eyes, said things I couldn’t understand and laughed. I don’t know how long it took me to stop going there. I found a new place in the north of town, a kind of glitzy store for the expatriates, but the staff were sweet and helpful. I bought produce from a local organic farmer, an estadounidense who camped out on the sidewalk downtown two mornings a week. Once I bought a bag of arugula from him–huge dark green leaves like I’ve never seen before or since. I brought it to my friend Iris at Il Giardino, and someone at the restaurant sauteed it with a little oil and garlic. It’s still a favorite meal of mine, especially with the brown rice pasta I’m in love with now.
One day when I walked past the produce place where I used to shop, the woman made a point of glaring at me. I remember the way she held my passing glance, her head moving, slow and deliberate, to keep me in her gaze as I walked past the open air stall. For a moment, I wondered if she was angry with me because I stopped buying from her. But that was only my logic, only me trying to make sense of what was happening. But logic wouldn’t help me here. Because as I watched her, she bared her lips in a snarl and her cheeks pinched up. It was more fierce than a wild animal might have been, cornered and terrified, lashing out. The look in her eyes was pure hatred, her face made grotesque by it. I scuffed my toe on the pavement, stumbled, her venom like a blow. I turned my back and kept walking. My arms trembled, my cloth shopping bags suddenly too much to keep upright. I let them dangle as I climbed the hill toward home. I wondered how she could hate me that much. She didn’t even know me. But to her I was the ugly American. To her, I was the reason her once-tiny fishing village teetered on an unknown brink, invaded by foreigners building palatial homes north of town, the growing middle class of Mexicans only beginning to get their footing, the huge disparities creating terrible tension just beneath the surface of her world. To her, I was to blame for everything that was wrong with her life. I’ll never forget the look on her face or the shock of that poison spewing out at me.
I dream I am in a foreign country. I drive across a sprawling city where there are no tall buildings, and all the roads cross on the diagonal. Later, I am in a big high-ceilinged room with a hundred children. They are all busy talking in a language I don’t recognize. When I leave, I drive on a narrow dirt road barely as wide as my car. The road peters out into a path, wide enough for people or burros, and in the dark I picture people walking there. The sides of the trail are covered with sand, spotted with scrubby vegetation, though I have the sense of trees in the distance, and open, undeveloped land that goes on and on toward the east. I turn the car around, thinking about my afternoon with the children.
My mind is working on the differences between this world and my own. I feel like I did when I first moved to Baja California Sur. I was glad I had driven there even though the driving itself was nightmarish. But it gave me a clear sense of the vast wilderness that lay between me and the border, long open distances like in the dream. I remember in those first weeks in Todos Santos noticing all the differences between the two worlds, my mind on overdrive, always comparing, contrasting, wondering, discerning.
There were little things and big ones everywhere I looked. In Mexico, the check is never brought to your table at a restaurant until you ask for it. In Mexico, you never approach someone in a store only to blurt our your question or your demand. You say good afternoon, buenas tardes. ¿Como está? How are you? You make contact first, present, courteous. In Mexico, you might sit on the patio reading or working online. You might forget you are in another world. But then you glance over your shoulder and see an iguana as big as your leg from the knee down, as thick around as your muscled calf. He is eating leaves in a nearby tree, his chewing slow and relaxed. He seems benign, but to have him munching yards away from your table is surreal.
In my dream, as I get the car turned around and head back the way I came on the dirt road, I remember how it felt when I couldn’t quiet my brain, couldn’t stop taking the measure of all things. I am doing it, too, in the dream, comparing the culture of this undeveloped country with my own. I watch the sandy banks beside the road in the headlights. I like this foreign land. But it will be much harder, I think, to come to understand the differences between this world and mine without knowing the language here. I’ll have to get to work on that.
I’ve heard the mockingbird singing from the top of the fan palm three mornings in a row. Today when I was lying on my back in the courtyard on my yoga mat, I listened to the verdin’s sweet three-note call. I pictured him sitting in the pine tree, his bright yellow cap and cheerful eyes hidden among the long green needles. Last week, both the hibiscus and the apricot mallow began to bloom again. The crickets have woken up, too. In spite of still mostly three-digit temperatures, they all recognize the secret signals, a heady mixture of the fewer hours of high heat each day, the angle of the sun making its way south, the nights in the seventies. And they aren’t grumbling like I am–tired of the heat, my tolerance used up–though they have more reason to than I who could escape it. They don’t indulge in weariness–they bounce. They celebrate in song, in bloom.
And their festivities cheer me on. I relish the feel of the cotton sheet over me in the early hours of the morning, the occasional weight of Sofia against leg or hip, missing for months now, a welcome surprise. I look forward to the day when I’ll be seeking the warmth of the sun on the patio when I do my yoga instead of hiding from it. I’ve lived in California most of my life, and still I bristle when someone tells me there are no seasons here. They are subtle but marked. Do not tell me otherwise. Soon the long clusters of green berries on the fan palm will ripen, and the starlings will feast, scattering in shiny black chattering when I walk outside. The days will grow shorter, the blue of the sky deeper. Riding my bike will become sheer bliss. Sometimes I think our desert, where some claim we have only two seasons, may mark the changes in the year more clearly than other parts of the state. Though I realize the changes are less visual than visceral. Here in the fall we begin to reawaken. We return to a state of grace, of ease in the outdoors.
The seasons were subtle in the places I lived in Mexico, too. But they were undeniable unless you just weren’t paying attention. In Todos Santos, the summer rains made for muggy heat, a boon for bugs, biting and otherwise. But it washed the dusty desert clean, changed the color of the world, the lush plant life made new. In winter you could go barefoot in the warm dry days. I remember sitting in my third-floor roost in La Casa Azul, my feet propped up against the rebar railing, marveling at being barefoot in the middle of January. You knew it was winter there by the nights. In Ajijic, jacarandas trumpeted the burgeoning spring, their lilac blossoms littering the cobblestones. The “rainbirds” were the harbingers of the summer rains, not birds at all but insects, a kind of cicada, I think. You could mark the onset of the rains on the calendar from the date you first heard the rainbirds sing. Autumn there meant a world of green, the hills bathed in all their new-growth glory after months of nightly rain. And fresh, sweet corn was everywhere.
I am watering the palm trees and the bougainvillea in the side yard when I think I see a small scorpion curled up against the faded red cement. Even as the possibility takes shape in my mind I have already washed it away. I stand barefoot on the wet stepping stone and point my nearsighted eyes around the edges, hunting for that familiar form. I don’t see the scorpion, but there are dried blossoms everywhere, evidence of my careless gardening. It would be easy to blend in. I bend close to the ground, afraid of spotting it, my wet toes curling at the thought. The scorpions I removed, again and again and again, from our blue house in Todos Santos come back to me now. I can’t remember my exact method, only the stiffness of my arms extended in front of me as I carried the scorpion out to the back patio and with each slow step the stifling of my urge to shriek and fling it violently away.
There were spiders in that home, too. I remember one black body crawling up the orange kitchen wall. It was bigger than my hand, my fingers spread wide. I left it alone, managed not to scream, not go running down the dirt road, gibbering in horror. I shudder even now, make another quick check around the circumference of my feet. All clear. I hose down my knees, my shins, wriggle my toes against the glistening cement. Did I really see a scorpion just now? And if I did, was it dead or alive? I shiver, go back to my watering. There are some things I don’t miss about living in Mexico, I think, as I turn to retrace my steps along the walkway. I wonder if some things, like spiders the size of plates, might even make me hesitate to live there again.
I shake my head, as if I could dislodge the thought, and walk through the cool wet to water my tecoma and my Mexican birds of paradise. They are both spilling out of their ceramic pots, encroaching on the path, lush and stunning in their messy late summer opulence. I see the painted gecko peeking out behind them, and I remember the high-pitched kissing sounds of the besoconas who lived in the palapa roof of our first Todos Santos rental. I liked their company, and I miss their cheerful noise. I remember, too, they are great eaters of bugs.
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.
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.
I don’t have many physical objects to stand for the time I lived in Mexico. I think if my departure had been less quick, maybe I’d have made a point to come back with more things, mementos of my time there. But I had a “knowing” I needed to return to the States, and I left four days later. So I never bought one of those bright-colored baskets the man I liked would carry around Ajijic. I’d had my eye on the big clothes hamper. And I came back with only the one small skeleton, not the collection of dia de los muertos figures I’d imagined. I wanted to buy blankets and rugs, the texture and color that calls me to that country. But I came back without them.
So instead it was the incidental things that returned with us, Lolita Roja packed to her gills with our ordinary possessions. I used the rest of the cinnamon I’d bought in Ajijic in the first few months of our return to the States, and when it was empty, I kept the narrow plastic spice jar for a long time, reluctant to recycle it, its bright orange lid and its Mexican label a strange keepsake. My fondness for the little canela container went beyond the norm. It had lived with us there. And I stretched my aspirin for years, doling out each aspirina tablet like treasure. I loved the Mexican aspirin. I meant to buy more the day I spent in Algodones, but I forgot. They come in small rectangular sheets. You poke them out of their little plastic resting places through the foil backing. You only had to take one. (I did the milligram math when I first moved to Baja California Sur.) They were so handy for slipping into a small zipper pocket. And you could just buy one sheet if you wanted to: eight aspirin. It’s one of the things I love about Mexico–you aren’t penalized if you only have enough money to buy a small amount. The culture isn’t like ours. It’s not all about the more you can afford to buy the less you have to pay for it.
I brought back dried marigold blossoms from the Aldama planters. They have thrived here in my desert garden, my “Mexican marigolds” I wrote about in last year’s blog. They are one of the dearest things I have to remember Mexico by. And on my bathroom windowsill I have another, this little cactus I found in Ajijic. It’s still in the small calcified water glass I placed it in when I first got back to the Aldama apartment with it. When I crossed the border, it was hiding in the trunk. I didn’t know what the rules were, and I wasn’t willing to risk losing this small living evidence of the world I’d left behind. I’ve thought I should plant it in my garden, that it would be happy here. But I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it, our time here uncertain, and I’m still not willing to risk parting with it.
I remember how excited I was the first time it sent out a tiny new shoot. And I remember when I found it, lying in the dirt below its parent plant on the side of the road just west of Ajijic. I’d headed past the cemetery, walked until the road ran to dirt, kept going, all unplanned. I came to big fields with running horses, half-finished dwellings made of red brick. The sounds of the cars on the carretera were faint as I walked, and now and then I caught a glimpse of the lake two blocks south of me. In time I came upon the giant parent cactus, ten feet tall, sprawled behind a brick wall. I stopped on the road to study it. There was a tree in bloom beside it, big puffy cotton-like blossoms. I wanted to come back with my camera. I stood in the road for a long time taking it all in. I felt something ease in me. I hadn’t known how much I needed to get away, how much I’d craved open space, earth beneath my feet, solitude. I soaked up rural Mexico, released breath I didn’t know I was holding, gave thanks. And when I was ready to walk on, I found this little piece of cactus lying in the dirt beside the wall, and I carried it home with care.