Monday, 31 December 2007

Sunrise in Todos Santos

One aspect of Todos Santos that continues (thankfully) to amaze me is the strength and purity of the light. When the sun rises up in the morning above the massive Sierra Lagunas and the local hills, it doesn’t shine with timidity. It sears its way onto the landscape, razor sharp (that is unless there is a local mist or bonfire of plastic refuse to diffuse the intensity!). I like to start my mornings enjoying the way the sun points you to looking at things differently.


The sun thunders over the hill
With precision timing
Blasting the tenuous streetscape with clarity

Invisible rays
As if in a vacuum
With no warning, no precursor
Seek out namesake flowers
Illuminating them from within
Burning them with radiant color
Breathing pulsating life
All else around now invisible

The miraculous beauty of those objects
Revealed to jaded eyes
For a lifetime of a few minutes
Till the sun abandons them
In its daily climb
Leaving the flowers
Muted, as before
But now comprehended.

Sunday, 30 December 2007


I have written before about the wonderful freedom that living in a small town provides to learn about yourself, and to redefine yourself. Like everything else, though, there is a dark side to this freedom. In this instance, I believe it is the danger of losing perspective.

Swimming in a small pool, it is easy to slide from the wonder of finding new talents and inward rejoicing, to self-aggrandizement. From finding your talents or the new service you can offer being one of the few in town, or the one in town to One of The Few, or The One.

Now I am not saying that there aren’t people in both Todos Santos and Comox whose skills and talents transcend the boundaries of the pool. I have been excited to find amazing musical and theatre talent in and around Comox. Todos Santos has sage and profound thinkers, and excellent writers, who spend at least part of the year here. Not everything in either location, however, is world-class, or even province or state class.

What I find most interesting about Todos Santos, however, is the way that some of the local perspectives can achieve almost mythic status. Open critique of such symbols appears actively frowned upon, on the grounds that it attacks the community and is not supportive of courageous individuals. Of course, the critique simply goes underground in the local hard currency of gossip.

I don’t see this public group-think in Comox. Maybe that’s because we Canadians are pretty laid back, and we don’t take ourselves that seriously. That’s also how we kept out of trouble in the world, until recently. But I won’t go there…

I am not saying that we should regard the activities in these towns with the perspective of a jaded city-dweller, looking down on the country bumpkins as they go about their lives. Far from it. Last year, I, and many others went to the one-night local production of “Nunsense”. I spoke to a visitor from San Diego and asked her how she was enjoying it. She was confused by the enthusiastic response from the locals in the audience, and attributed it to there not being a lot of competing entertainment in town. It was not, in her view, of the same caliber to which she, as a sophisticated city-dweller, had become accustomed. I think she was missing the point, taking another, invalid, perspective. True, the singing was not perfect and the production was maybe not as polished as in a Broadway offering. What the audience was responding to was, I believe, the effort being put into the show by local amateurs for their benefit, the joy that the actors were showing, the sight of revered town figures in nun’s habits, happy to poke fun at themselves. And the unpretentious price did not preclude anyone seeing the show.

Perspective is a matter of seeing things as they really are. Without it, and the ability to receive gentle, well-meaning critique, I think it is hard to continue to grow.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Walking on Cerritos

Even with the development that has happened at Cerritos, it is possible to escape quickly to miles of beach that remain relatively untouched. I find walking in this special place is a way to connect with whatever is going on inside at that moment.

Walking on Cerritos

The sea slinks back from its battle with the land
Leaving the weary sand flattened

I start to walk, bare footed
Quickly abandoning the structured rows of chairs
That frame expectant crowds
The babble of excitement
Fading into white noise
Then submerging under the drone of the sulking sea

My toes sink into cool, granular wetness
Where the battle has just ended, the result still in doubt

Pace slackening
Matching the darkly contemplative mood of my thoughts
Feet now met by the hardness
Of endless sand resplendent
A dried crust cracking
To pristine softness below

A million sparkles of light
Ghosts of battles long past
Scintillate in shimmery wetness
Patterns of dark and light
Swirl on the surface
Ephemeral beauty created by painful turmoil

Now I am alone
Save for the nervous sandpipers that precede me
Announcing my arrival to the emptiness
Feet moving without conscious control
As my mind chews tasteless cud

There, despoiling the sand ahead, are perfect footprints
Appearing, as if from nowhere
Measured stride trumpeting confidence
But then gone
Erased by the final lunge of a desperate wave

And as the water slides back
Leaving nothing
I wish that I too could be cleansed
And emerge renewed.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Finding your way in Todos Santos

Moving to a small town like Todos Santos or, to a lesser extent, Comox, might seem constricting and limiting. Paradoxically, the very smallness of the places and reduced distractions perhaps provide a wide-open, and scary opportunity for reinvention.


I’m floating
Adrift from ancient moorings
That sheltered me from gales of self-examination
Now distant and awkward
Yet emitting still the heady pheromone of familiarity

Unused to the infinities of open water
Aware of the existence of sea monsters
Of whirlpools that invite and draw into cloying depths
I lie terrified in excitement
Imagine careening across the crest of waves
Sails filled with the sureness of life
Pursuing a path of passionate purpose

But my senses are encrusted with the past
No trusted instruments at hand
To measure the worth of the currents
To judge delicious scents wafting across the water
To find and plot my course

And so I float
In my personal Sargasso of memories and unformed wishes
Tentatively exploring my surrounds
By the light of intuition
Waiting for the insistent lapping of waves
To dissolve the crust
And set me free.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Reality Check

Last weekend, we drove to Cabo and San Jose del Cabo for some necessary shopping and to meet with friends. I have never enjoyed Cabo, other than as a venue for people-watching, but we lived in San Jose for 6 years before coming to Todos Santos.

I was overwhelmed by the changes that have swept through the towns. Blooms of subdivisions cascade over the landscape. The once vacant beach near our old condo has sprouted jostling hotels, our place now cowering beneath much larger, grander complexes. A glossy magazine lists 130 pages of homes, most of which are well over $1M (and, apparently, the most expensive houses sell fastest).

Supporting the delivery of new construction, and servicing the residents and visitors, is a huge industry, which has drawn many new people to the area. The twin towns and the corridor between them have become bustling nests of activity, complete with traffic jams and all the usual paraphernalia of North American progress.

As I wandered around San Jose, with its rows of identical silver and tacky trinket shops, I found myself asking “Why do people want to come here, now?”

I remember what delighted me about San Jose in the past. I felt as though I were invited into a foreign culture, an adventurer, experiencing all the quirkiness of real life. Hunting series of shops till we found all the ingredients for a meal. Marveling over the logic of shops that place car parts next to bird cages, cookies, blenders and dresses. Feeling triumphant when, after seeking for days, I find a large aluminum juice press hidden in the back of one of these stores.

Those days are past, eliminated through the convenience of supermarkets and big box stores.

My friend helped me understand why people flock to the Cabos. He pointed out that the incredible climate and the excellent golf and sports fishing were all still there, less than 2 hours from a large percentage of the American population. That’s what people wanted, he said, now more than ever. Then it dawned on me. Most people aren’t going to Cabo and San Jose to go to Mexico. They want a hedonistic escape from reality. Maybe seasoned a little with some nice scenic backdrops, some carefully packaged authentic “folkloric dancing”, and some souvenirs to prove you were there. The Mexico they want is a homogenized, manicured, Disneyland experience.

I was glad to return to our home town, which does not revolve solely around the servicing of hedonists. Fishing boats still go out to catch fish, not fishermen. I can still enjoy the quirks of real Mexican town life, with sudden appearance and disappearance of assorted farm animals on adjacent vacant lots, and, upon opening our car gate one night this week, finding a horse tied up at the electricity pole, its owner waiting to go on a date with his girlfriend from the house next door.

I vote for reality. I wonder how much the new Master Plan for Todos Santos, due to be published soon, will be based on the principle of maintaining that reality.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

In praise of a Mango Tree

Our garden is blessed by an old mango tree that sits by the edge of the property, and overhangs the bedroom roof. This tree provides us with many things. A dramatic backdrop to the garden, dappled shade, a trellis for a vine to ascend and mingle its ineffably blue violet flowers with the dark greens and reds of the mango leaves, and cover for the succession of birds that rest here as the day progresses: ponderous pigeons in the cool of the night and early morning, vibrant yellow families of orioles in the afternoon, whispering finches as the light fades. But, greatest of all, the tree produces mangoes.

Our mangoes are in season during the late summer. When we arrive here, in November, they are usually finished, the only reminder being the desiccated husks of dropped fruit on the roof. This year, there were 5 or 6 magnificent fruits still on the tree, which our resourceful gardener retrieved. We waited expectantly for them to ripen, and prepared to eat one.

Eating ripe mangoes often evokes images of sensuality and eroticism. Maybe it’s due to their juiciness, the softness of the flesh. Bite into one, close your eyes, and you can be transported to a naked picnic under the stars on a rooftop, kissing the drips off each other’s cooling flesh, or languorously wading waist deep in the warm sea, dipping the mango in the water and sharing the confusion of salty sweetness.

The taste of this home-grown mango was like no other experienced before. It was the essence of mango, The Alpha and Omega of Mango. It exploded on the tongue, overwhelming in its impact, drowning out any indirect musings on sensuality in its immediacy. Like a fine wine, I savored the change in flavor as I moved it around my mouth, the subtle aftertaste.

We hoarded the others, sharing only with special guests, and when the stash was exhausted, moved on to other commercial products. They were serviceable, still delicious, but a pale imitation of the fruit of our special tree. Forget the “100 Mile Diet”, I believe in the “100 Meter Mango Diet” and have found a good reason why you might want to stay here in the summer.

Comox, our other home, unfortunately does not grow Mangoes. It does have its signature fruit, namely the Blackberry. Blackberries are indeed scrumptious, but, perhaps due to their puritanical English origins, they don’t evoke in me any images of sensuality or eroticism.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Living in a Pressure Cooker

Stress and living in Todos Santos seem, at first glance, to be an oxymoron. People stay here to escape the stress in life, don’t they? How can living here be pressured?

I was amused to read a Baja travelogue a couple of days ago, where the authors, as part of a long journey, came to Todos Santos for a day. They wandered around the town (that didn’t take long), and peered into Hotel California, which they concluded contained a few hip people. Then, they reasoned, Todos Santos was clearly such a sleepy place, overall, that they needed to move on the next day to avoid terminal boredom.

The lack of the usual busy noise and diversions of life, however, is exactly what provides the basis for stress, admittedly of a different kind to that experienced in cities. Living here, whether single or as a couple, brings the opportunity to come face to face with the stark reality of yourself and your relationships. And that is neither easy, nor comfortable. The environment here is like a pressure cooker, enabling the juices of our feelings, our essences, to cook faster, and in a more intense manner than “normal” life.

A friend of mine, after committing to come and live here full time with her husband, wailed, partly in jest “Living together here, 24/7, 365 days a year. What was I thinking?”

Of course, human nature being what it is, we can invent a cornucopia of ways to avoid facing ourselves and others. Medication (legal, such as alcohol, and otherwise), passionate commitment to a cause, serial dinner parties – there are so many tricks by which we avoid intimacy.

The beauty, and maybe the magic, of Todos Santos is that it has a way of gently guiding you back to yourself, if only you pay attention. The clarity of the air, the vividness of the light, the sounds of life and the ocean, the endless unclaimed beach, the overall immediacy of the experience of being here – they all offer gateways into the hardest work of all, understanding and accepting yourself.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Beach Time

Just 5 minutes from the centre of Todos Santos (well, maybe 10 minutes, given the rain-ravaged state of the roads), you can be on the beach to the North of the town. This long stretch of untouched sand, dunes and raw Pacific is a place to reconnect with yourself. A friend of mine likes to walk along the beach, sliding down sand banks on her heels, reveling in the spray on her face, and letting her inner child play. We all have different ways of connecting. I like to sit and watch.

By the Sea

I sit on the dune
Sun-seared sand sliding softly through my fingers and toes
Watching the sea perform its dance of intimacy with the virgin beach
Sometimes advancing with roaring passion
Waves blushing white
Sometimes retreating reluctantly with deep sighs
Always together

A dart of silver fish is suspended, momentarily, in the turquoise curl of a wave
And is gone

A necklace of identical pelicans
Joined invisibly
Glides silently and effortlessly across the union between sea and beach
Measuring a constant height above the ecstatic waves

Above me, ephemeral wisps of clouds emerge
Play briefly, and fade
In the crystalline sky

I am here
And a million miles from anywhere.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

One Man's Garbage ...

When visitors first come to our house, deep in a Mexican barrio, they usually exclaim how surprised they are at the beauty of the place. Part of it is that the house is indeed delightful and surrounded by a tropical abundance. When we walk into town with the visitors, however, a different picture sometimes emerges. “How can you live in the middle of this … mess?” they protest, pointing at piles of building refuse on an unused lot, and dog-disturbed bags of food waste by the side of the road.

I have to admit that it is not aesthetically pleasing, to my North American / English sensibilities. If you care to dig below the surface of the garbage, however, the picture is not so clear.

Firstly, it really is garbage. It is only material that is of no use, because anything that can be reused, is. We learned early on in Mexico that, to be courteous, you separate what might conceivably be of use to someone from real trash, to save them the unpleasantness of plowing through garbage to get at “treasure”.

It fascinates me to see how fast the recycling process takes. My personal record is under 5 seconds, when I dragged the very old, non-functional range into the street. My neighbor suddenly appeared from behind his wall and asked if he could have it. I agreed, and it disappeared again behind his wall.

Even when there appears to be no-one around, things that I would have thought were of limited value disappear mysteriously. It’s almost as if there is an instant secret network in town that is on the look-out for any material.

Most importantly, though, the streetscape that you and I might perceive as somewhat of a mess really doesn’t matter to my neighbors. If it did, they’d do something about it. Their families and their home life are more important to them than a pristine external environment. What a novel thought!

The sacrosanct North American principle of not littering simply isn’t inculcated here. Before you denigrate Mexicans, however, think back 35 years in the States. It was not uncommon then, I gather, to throw cans and candy wrappers out of cars.

There are signs of change. People tell me that the Todos Santos garbage dump now gets some things of value (being a “townie”, I get garbage collection and therefore can’t report on this first hand!). If you look at the middle class subdivisions springing up all over Cabo, you’ll see that they are just as pernickety about their streets as any American or Canadian.

Maybe these changes are for the better. I just hope the positive aspects of the Mexican value system will survive this "Americanization".

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Listening to Todos Santos

Living in town in Todos Santos is a feast for the ears. You might think maybe even too much of a feast, if you are a new visitor. If you listen closely though, beneath the initial impression of sonic chaos, there is a certain comforting daily cycle to the sounds.

Listening to Todos Santos

Before the tendrils of dawn tentatively creep into the sky
A vigilant rooster hurls its challenge into the cool air
Quickly answered by others, determined to compete
Till the sky is filled with their cacophony

The gentle rustle of palm leaves presages the arrival of the sun
And the awakening of the town

One by one, engines, ancient and arthritic, or temperamentally macho
Reluctantly stir into life
Trucks bumble along the dusty streets
Trailing fading clouds of raucous ranchero music

Insistent horns traverse the town
Announcing the arrival of gas or brooms
Tuneless trumpets mangle staccato drum beats
Initiating the school day

As the sun warms the ground, the sound mellows
Becomes cocooned
The patter of the fountain blending with snatches of laughter
And the distant sounds of construction

When the mangoes are painted golden by the lagging sun
And vultures swirl slowly in the vertiginous sky
The cooling air sharpens the sound
Extracting birds from daytime hiding places
Strident calls of a family of Flickers
Counterpoint squawks of squabbling Orioles and the chatter of Finches
Till the dying light leaves nothing
But the chink of hummingbirds defending their territory

Cicadas pounce on the fall of night
A sonic foundation for the emergence of a plethora of stars
Interrupted by mournful howls of lonely dogs
And wafts of celebratory music
Till the darkness drains energy from all
And the town falls into silence
Drawing strength for the new day.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007


One of the challenges that you face moving to a new place (and it’s even worse when you move between two new places as we do) is establishing and growing new relationships. People generally call it “making new friends”, but I have always had difficulty with that term. I find there is a huge spectrum of relationships that people call “friendship”, and what suits and is desired by one person may be anathema to another.

Both Comox and Todos Santos experience a large influx of new people each year, and so there are novitiates in both places hungering for new connections. The “Newcomers Club” in Comox is the 2nd largest in Canada, which is quite amazing given the size of the town. This organization, which is essentially only for women (on the grounds, no doubt, that normal men don’t need friendships if they golf or can share masculine grunts while watching hockey), hosts parties for members and their partners to meet others. Although I go to most, hoping to be surprised, I have to say I find these events deeply dissatisfying. I gain very little from exchanges that start with the essential “What brought you here?”, and never get beyond the “What activities do you do?” or “Can you please share your recipe for that appetizer?”

Of course, I’m expecting too much. I just desire oxymoronic instant intimacy. If I can’t have intensity in a relationship, learn about and share inner feelings and ideas, then I have little interest in continuing, or at least developing it. And, in a perfect world, I want this state immediately, without the quite necessary preamble and testing that happens before real people will reveal themselves fully. Understanding that this is unrealistic, I still believe it is possible to identify fairly quickly where there is limited potential for such deepening.

In Comox, based on my experience with the Newcomers Club, many people seem very content with establishing a wide circle of essentially activity-based acquaintances, and have no devilish desire to delve deeper. Todos Santos appears, generally, a more fertile hunting ground for my personal concept of friendship. Maybe that’s partly because, until recently at least, unlike Comox, you had to be a bit of an adventurer and an odd duck to choose Todos Santos as a place to stay. It was primitive in parts, a little “new ageish” (they play drums and do Tarot there, don’t they?), and without fishing or golf. While other parts of Baja had more conventional inhabitants, there weren’t really any vanilla ones here. That may be changing, with the growth of more “Carmel-like” subdivisions. But for now, I, as an odd duck, find many people here to be interesting and interested.

Finding and starting new friendships is one thing. Sustaining them is quite another. On reflection, it seems to me that intense friendships may have a natural lifecycle. People come together when they find it addresses their common needs, whether those relate to a specific difficult shared external event, or some aspect of their inner selves they need to address. But then people and situations evolve, the needs diverge, and with them, at least the intensity or nature of the connection. That isn’t to say that you can’t keep friendships. When we get together with our best friends of many years, it seems, for the duration of the visit, like we were never apart. I’m not sure, however, whether this relationship or others would withstand, without evolution, extended visits that washed away the novelty and newsy aspects of our interactions.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Water, water, everywhere, but…

Yesterday was another wet, dreary day in Todos Santos, with rain falling from early morning right through till the evening.

On the whole, rain is not kind to Todos Santos. There are some good points – the rain makes a valiant attempt to wash the ever-present dust off plants leaving them gleaming and refreshed, the aquifers are replenished, and there is a primal, fertile smell in the air. But Todos Santos is a Baja town built around an oasis in the desert. Rain is not a usual occurrence, and life here is not designed to accommodate it.

Dirt roads turn into sticky streams filled with gelatinous mud. Dips in the roads fill with red water of unknown depth. Open air restaurants sit empty, their welcoming spaces sad and bedraggled. And the brilliant colours of the town appear muted. One of the magical things about this town is the quality of the light. The clarity of the air, and the intensity of the sunlight make shadows appear separate entities from their parent objects. When the grey clouds move in, the magic disappears.

Last night, in the midst of this surfeit of water, friends from the Las Tunas subdivision bemoaned that they had not had any water from the town’s water supply for 2 weeks. How can this be? One cause, familiar to Comox and any other desirable area, is that it’s hard for infrastructure to keep up with growth. In this instance, however, there’s a very specific reason. Last summer, the main pump for the town’s water system broke. Apparently, there is no money that can be allocated to fix or replace it. Given that the alternate pump can’t meet all demand, water is rationed. The “townies” (like us) haven’t really suffered. The outlying areas, however, have been severely restricted and have had to rely on their storage pilas. And when there is water, the first residences on the pipe draw it all till their storage is full, leaving others still dry.

Why has this gone on for so long? I suspect it has something to do with lack of self-determination in Todos Santos. The town is administered by the capital city of La Paz, 1 hour away, as if it were a suburb of the city. There is no locally elected body here that has real decision making power. La Paz is a bustling, growing city that has its own water issues, with rationing a standard part of day-to-day existence for many of its residents. I am not sure the interests of the few residents in our distant town stack up highly against other, more proximate concerns. It also may not be coincidental that most of the residents in the outlying areas like Las Tunas are not Mexican citizens, and are therefore not entitled to vote.

Will the water issues get fixed? I’ve been here long enough to believe that they will, in the same way the sun has returned today as if it had never been missing. But the resolution will be on Mexican time, of course. That is where we live!

Monday, 10 December 2007

La Madrugada (the wee small hours of the morning)

To me, there’s something special about that time when the night has overstayed its welcome, and yet it’s still not morning. It’s an in-between state, a blank canvas, pregnant with possibilities. That’s why I named my last consulting company ‘Madrugada”. But the blankness is also a space into which the monsters within you can emerge, untrammeled by logic and the noise of day-to-day life. Spending time reflecting in a small, culturally different town like Todos Santos provides a fertile ground for such demons.

3 a.m.

Even the dogs tire of barking
As the smudged moon trudges its way across the sky
The monochrome light leaching solid form and acoustic debris
Leaving only the staccato, whining challenge of a lonely truck
As it penetrates the heart of the town

And in this simplified environment
Favoured by suicides
I begin to sweat a foul amalgam
Of unwanted thoughts and emotions
That challenges the rationality and value of my life
Tentatively at first
Then gushing forth to drown me
As it gains dark confidence

Colour edges its way back into the sky
Drawing out the trivial sounds of business
And dank vapour from the earth and me
Leaving a bitter residue on heart, eyes and tongue
That taints the day to come.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Chipping away at Mental Models

We all use mental models to help us slide through life comfortably and easily. Life in Todos Santos, and in Mexico in general, has a habit of breaking the models we’ve built up so carefully in the North.

When we moved to Todos Santos, we bought a house that friends later politely described as “needing a little polishing”. We grew tired of the eclectic collection of iron and cheap aluminum windows, whose humorous attempts at screens only kept out insects that didn’t have the initiative to go to the open edges, or those larger than a bumblebee. Our gardener (the source of all information here) took me down overgrown alleys and tracks on “el Otro Lado” and introduced me to someone in our little town that made passable North American style windows to replace all of ours. Oh glee! I asked about installation. “Was it included?” “Oh yes. You’ll just have to remove the old ones, and your gardener can help with that”.

Now I was perfectly clear about how window replacement worked. I’d had it done several times in Canada. So when the gardener and his contractor friend came up with a huge figure as a quote for removing the windows I was upset. I must be getting the Gringo price, I thought, again applying a familiar mental model. I negotiated the price a little lower, and grudgingly agreed for the work to begin.

We were so glad we listened to the gentle advice (given twice) by the gardener that we might want to move the bed out of the bedroom. Surely, we thought, moving it away from the window will give them enough room to work? But removing windows is not the job I imagined. You have to chip out the concrete and blocks that the window and its heavy metal anchors are set in. Then you have to rebuild the opening with a cement / fine sand mix to be perfectly square. Working at the fastest pace they could, they reached the staggering production capacity of one opening a day. And the mess…

Needless to say, it was very uncomfortable camping in a windowless house for three weeks. I paid the workers what they had asked for originally, and a bonus, admitting my mistake and misconceptions.

It’s very painful to have your mental models destroyed. And, even worse, what is left when they are gone?

Deconstructing in Mexico

Adrift from structured work
I’m smothered by an infinity of neutered opportunities
Passionately uninterested
Seeking escape in creative illusions of construction
That, with painstaking slowness and repetition
Systematically clog any remnants of life
Beneath the debris of stone, cement
and shattered expectations of life.

“Mexico will round your edges” we were told
But I had no clear form before the chiselers started
And now, as a shapeless mass
What once appeared as a birthplace for renewal
Seems as confining as any prison
Binding my soul in a dark, dark place
Invisible to me.

Thursday, 6 December 2007


Splitting my year between Todos Santos and Comox sharply highlights the truth that everything is impermanent. At a simple physical level, it’s like taking a snapshot one day, and then finding that the picture has changed next time you see it. This year in Todos Santos, for example, there’s a frenzy of construction of new buildings of varying levels of architectural merit, especially in the historic core (trying to be grandfathered before the Pueblo Magico Master Plan comes into effect). There’s the new fruit and vegetable store – a source of much discussion for a week or so – small towns are so small!

We all differ in our value judgments of change, but we also have our comfort point – the place at which we want to “freeze” things. I spoke this week to one of the original settlers of “Las Tunas”, the tony neighborhood on el Otro Lado, where now many of the new US immigrants have built their dream houses away from those noisy Mexicans so they can enjoy the “true Baja”. She decried the change that has transformed the simple desert place that they wanted for themselves into a busy upscale neighborhood of fancy homes. One person’s dream shattered, while others see their dreams realized – for a while. For as surely as change comes that we see as great, it continues and morphs the state we love into something else.

This hit home for me yesterday, visiting Los Cerritos beach. This beach of miles of firm golden sand, edged by a rocky headland, is one of the gems of the Pacific Coast. It was raw, and in that form enjoyed by many RV enthusiasts. We loved it, but also felt a little uncomfortable with the complete lack of amenities. No toilets! As the Ejido converted their communal land into titled lots that could be sold, this began to change. As well as a land rush on lot sales, a restaurant/bar appeared on the beachfront. It became the new mecca for Todos Santaeans – the luxury of being able to have a beer and pee in comfort! And the beauty of the place was essentially unchanged.

Fast forward to yesterday. The bar has been transformed into a real estate office full of timeshare-like dudes. It still also happens to sell drinks, but as a lure to drag the suckers in. The first of many, many blocks of condos is already under construction. The headland is now the private enclave of the developer. Jet skis weave between the bathers and surfers. So, much as we wanted to believe it wouldn’t happen, the changes, this time for the worse in our view, roll on inexorably.

It’s not just places that change. Relationships are seeded out of common needs, blossom, and inevitably wane or transform as one’s needs evolve. It’s probably easier to see that in our temporally interrupted lives. Coming back into town, you don’t really pick up where you left. Some become closer, others cleave away.

The truth of impermanence is one of the core messages of the Dharma talks here in Todos Santos. Denying it, and “clinging” to things, people, relationships, feelings, is the root of the suffering we all feel as part of the human condition. We all crave permanence in some form. Here in Mexico, they place plastic flowers at graves. Maybe they hope they’ll last forever. But the sun’s UV rays degrade even them over time.

It hurts to have to accept that everything will pass. I need to learn to get over the desire to freeze things as they are, or to only welcome what I see as positive change. I think I’ll cling to that thought…

Monday, 3 December 2007

It's a Dog's Life

Dogs Rule!

No, that is not an exhortation or celebration of the wonder of doggies. It just happens to be true, here in Todos Santos.

While it’s always been at the back of my mind, this thought came to the forefront as I drove over to my exercise class last week. At every intersection, from every lot and compound, dogs observed my progress. It occurred to me that it is quite impossible to travel, dog-incognito, in this place.

There are two reasons why dogs are the dominant life form in town. One, observable in any Mexican town, is that dogs seem to be naturally social, unlike humans. They really don’t mind mixing (and mating) with any breed, and they don’t care about lineage. They are quite productive (what else do you do as a dog in a town, other than eat or sleep?), and so the population of pathetic looking Dachshund / German Shepherd crosses, Terrier / Poodles, and that most definitive of breeds, the Baja Hound, grows till it exceeds the carrying capacity of the land.

The other, which appears to be specific to Southern Baja in general, and Todos Santos in particular, is that somehow, without my knowledge, they appear to have passed a law that says all Gringo inhabitants must serve at least one dog. Really, you aren’t a true “immigrant citizen” until you cater to the whims of at least 2 dogs. Note that I didn’t say “own”, as, despite the popular saying, it isn’t just cats that have servants rather than masters.

Now I have to declare a bias here. I seemed to have missed the inoculation that makes people regard dogs as a lifeform way above that of a grown human, indeed at least as high as a speechless infant. Unlike those around me how declare how cute it is, I fail to derive pleasure from seeing a dog drag its dirty butt across a carpet to express its anal glands. And if it really is so wonderful to sniff an acquaintance’s butt, why don’t we all do it when we get together? Behaviors that wouldn’t be tolerated of a child – peeing on someone’s bag, making deposits on the beach - are seen as harmless expressions of necessary functions. They are animals, after all. But I think that many seem to forget this, and don’t see incongruity between this truth and their loving admissions that they spend more money and attention on their dogs than they do / did on their kids.

So we have a cornucopia of dogs in Todos Santos, and they are revered. Not a bad life! They come to every function (“Why not?” I already hear many of you asking), and hang out on every corner. Of course, I know the real reason is to keep an eye on the potential insurgents within their midst, like me. That’s why the canine rulers of this place always come up to check me out when I arrive somewhere. At least I know where my Karmic evolution should take me next, if I behave.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

A Sense of Community

It is, I believe, some complex and deep need to belong that compels many of us to migrate, like moths to the light, into small towns such as Todos Santos and Comox, where we think we can soothe this hurt. I was reminded of this by a wide-eyed visitor to Todos Santos at a recent gallery opening who used the words to describe the attraction of the place. The phrase resonated with me as I am as guilty as anyone of using it in the past to describe my attraction to TS. If you dig beneath the obvious, though, just what do we mean by the phrase, and does it exist here?

There have been many learned studies about the term “sense of community”. One of the most established is by McMillan and Chavis. They suggest that there are four elements necessary for a true sense of community:

Membership – including some sense of boundaries, and a feeling of identification
Influence -Influence works both ways: members need to feel that they have some influence in the group, and some influence by the group on its members is needed for group cohesion.
Integration and fulfillment of needs - Members feel rewarded in some way for their participation.
Shared emotional connection - The "definitive element for true community", it includes shared history and shared participation (or at least identification with the history).

It’s not hard to evoke the illusion of a sense of community when you come to a small town. There aren’t many people there, and, certainly in a vacation town like TS, there’s a need to mix, to socialize with almost anyone. In a larger place like Comox / Courtenay, the herds of uprooted and often purposeless retirees that make their way to “Paradise Valley” need to make new roots. So we all mix, see the same people, feel good that we “belong”. Superficially, there’s that sense we craved.

Really, though, we’re only talking about the first item. We are now an “in-sider”, rather than an insignificant outsider. Viewed at the macro level, however, the only thing linking people is that they came here. In the very beginning, when TS was tiny and being here as a Gringo/a was odd, I am sure some sense of “making history” would have also have led to a general sense of a shared emotional connection.

As a whole, though, neither TS nor Comox promulgates the middle two characteristics of a “sense of community”. I’m not even sure there is such thing as the Todos Santos community, other than in the most geographic sense of the word. We can’t even agree, for example, on whether it includes the local Mexicans as a separate group or groups, or we are or should be an idealized homogenous bucolic whole.

That is not to say that within these superficial geographic clumps there aren’t groups that do provide some true sense of community to their “members”. Within Todos Santos, for example, life revolves around tight circles such as the Dog Rescue Pack, the Cat Rescue Clowder, the Entertain the Migrant Children Clan, the Wine Bar Devotees, the Dharma-ites, The In-Crowd, The “Shut Up Franks” Regulars. These circles intersect, to varying degrees. Some, such as the informal Dog Rescue Pack, do, I suspect, provide to some all elements of a “sense of community”.

Micro communities have their own issues. It’s a small, small world. The price can be a restriction of world view to one where homogeneity rules, and the outside world doesn’t really exist other than as an exemplar of aberrant behavior. You also have to believe in the cause. Faking it till you make it doesn’t really cut it.

After the initial glow wore off, we decided naively that the secret to a fulfilling life in Todos Santos would be to surf the boundaries between the micro-groups, not falling into the welcoming folds. While it’s true that this avoids the deadly embrace of exclusivity, it requires you to be distant from everything. Even, maybe, to deny your own opinions – which I can’t do.

So is there true community in these places? I’m still looking and hoping.