I remember walking from La Casa Azul to downtown Todos Santos. It was late afternoon. I don’t remember where I was going, maybe to meet my Spanish teacher Guillermo at the cafe. I was taking the side streets north of the highway. I passed a woman washing clothes in her yard, another taking stark white dress shirts down off a clothesline. A man in a hat was hosing down the dirt road in front of his house when I passed. He smiled and nodded. “Buenas tardes,” I said. I passed a house with a garden in the front, vines climbing the wire fence, purple blooms. A woman was scraping food from a pot into a white enamel bowl on the ground, her brown dog dancing at her feet. “Oh,” I said. I was grinning. “She’s so excited about it.” Ella está muy emocionada sobre su comida. I remember the woman’s laugh, how it opened up her face. I remember the sweetness inside that moment together, of being part of her love for her dog.
Last Saturday I spent the day selling books and bowls and all sorts of other things at my sidewalk sale. I called it that in the craigslist post because I liked the sound of it. We don’t have a sidewalk along this property, but I spread blankets and sheets over the gravel where the sidewalk would be if we had one, and I lined up my boxes of books, my Tupperware, my clothes. I swept the street the night before, and after my 11-hour stint that Saturday, I swept it again, feeling small chills as I moved the broom across the asphalt, the precursors of heat stroke, I imagined. So yesterday when the neighbor’s gardener blew a bunch of debris into the gutter in front of my home, I was already in that mode. I headed out with my broom again. I swept the blacktop and remembered how in Todos Santos, people would rake the dirt road in front of their property. They carved neat tracks in the sandy dirt, and in the dry seasons they would hose it down, the water poking holes in the tidy grooves the rake had made. Downtown, where the roads are paved, shopkeepers would wash the sidewalks in front of their stores with soapy water. I remember being surprised, at first, and yet it seemed so natural, so right. Of course, I thought. Claro que sí. Of course we should each tend our own little section of the street.
I’ve longed for ages for a home where I felt like I could spend the rest of my life. When I moved to Sonoma County, it was the first time I had that feeling about a place. I remember driving home from Santa Rosa on Guerneville Road past green farms, the oak-studded hills before me. Look where I live, I thought. When I moved into La Casa Azul in Todos Santos, it was the first time I had that feeling about an actual dwelling. Things went terribly awry with my landlord there, but I remember that giddy feeling, thinking I’d found the home of my dreams. I remember wondering if I’d be able to negotiate the wrought iron spiral staircase when I grew old.
Over the years I’ve built a habit of studying the yards, examining the homes whenever I walk down the street. “Oh, I could live there,” I’d say to myself, caught by the wrap around porch or the climbing wisteria, both pleasure and longing evoked by my ritual, a bittersweet practice. When I lived in Ajijic where buying a home might have been one day more within my reach, I photographed for sale signs. I remember one advertising an empty lot of neatly turned earth, a beautiful brick wall surrounding it, a blue metal gate. I went as far as to look at two homes for sale up in the hills. One was all white and one was green, and they were both two stories tall with miradores that made them seem like three-story homes. I don’t remember any details about the houses themselves, only those marvelous rooftop patios, the views of the village spread out below them, the lake in the distance. I would have lived on those roofs.
Now in my unexpected southern California life, thanks to two dear friends and the workings of a generous universe, I’m on the threshold of having my longing met in the old trailer home I’ve just bought. I don’t get to take possession of it, so to speak, until April, but it has possessed me from day one. It has grabbed me by my viscera, invoking big dreams of a magic home I can grow old in, tending my garden and writing my books, the stark place transformed little by little in the intervening years to lushness and color, where my birds will want to linger chatting together in the bougainvillea or the palos verdes. I can see myself sipping tea on my patio there years from now, watching the sun disappear behind my mountains, the sparrows and the mourning doves scritching among the leftover seeds in the late afternoon quiet. I don’t have words to say how grateful I am, how full this makes me, how much awe it awakens. But I seem determined to try anyway, to fall short but maybe brush the feathers of the thing in my attempt. Thank you, universe. Thank you, dwelling gods. Thank you, especially, my good friends. Thank you.
In Todos Santos, I could see the bonfire in the dirt crossroads beside the corner market two doors down from La Casa Azul. Rockets bombarded the last night of the year, and the flash of firecrackers fell across the ceiling and the tall walls in my second story bedroom.
I was supposed to go to Iris’s for the evening celebration. I’d imagined driving over before dark, but she called me from a restaurant downtown where they had all ended up to let me know they wouldn’t be home until later. It took what wind was left in me, buffeted as I was from the neighborhood fiesta. I imagined trying to squeeze my red Jetta past all the other fires in the streets between my center of the old village and Iris’s home in el otro lado, fireworks arcing across my car, fingers gripping white on the steering wheel. I chickened out, hunkered down at home with the cats while the wild party crashed around our barrio. Felíz año nuevo.
I’ve never been fond of pigeons. Even now, I admit I still tend to dismiss them, am less pleased to see a group of them on a telephone wire than a gathering of mourning doves, some strange bird snobbery at work in me. But now I remind myself of what I came to know of them in Mexico. When I lived in La Casa Azul, in the blue house in Todos Santos, I came to respect pigeons. They lived next door to me, in the eves of the artist’s studio, the man I rented my house from there. I always wondered if he initiated their residency, started the colony there on some whim, some fancy about the romance and quirkiness the studio should reflect, not realizing how it might grow. I never asked.
But I would sit perched on my tall wrought iron chair in my semi-third-floor roost and watch the pigeons fly together. I’d always loved the sounds they made nestled in the eves, the muted rounded coos, bird pillow talk. But I never really watched them fly before. I remember the first time I saw them take off for their morning flight, making big loops across the sky, flapping and gliding in tandem. I was struck by the vigor of their bird bodies, by their prowess in formation despite the quickness of their flight. They would launch into the air together every morning for the first looping flight, a burst of celebration for the day to come. In the late afternoon, they took flight again before dusk, a happy sky dance, a few last circles of gratitude and play before bed. And I would sit in my own roost, feet propped on the rebar railing before me, and marvel at the ease of their antics. Each time they took to the sky, I fluttered with awe.
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.