Sunday, 28 December 2008

Finding what you don’t seek

A few years ago, while we were filling in our swimming pool (and that’s another story!), we dispossessed a small iguana, who had, unbeknownst to us, made his home in the interstice between two sheets of roofing material sheltering the pool equipment. I am not sure who was more surprised, the interloper or the tenant, as the iguana launched himself into the air and disappeared into the garden.

He relocated to a much quieter neighbourhood; a pile of unused rocks against the wall in our backyard. Whenever the sun fell on the rockpile, our iguana would sun himself, quickly hiding at any hint of danger. When your house has been destroyed in a flash by two alien monsters, it’s not hard to see why you would become a little jittery.

Each year, I seek out our iguana to see how he is doing. But this year, he was nowhere to be seen. I tried creeping up silently on his home, tried waiting patiently for him to appear, but failed to catch a glimpse of the errant lizard. I gave up hope of finding him again. I thought that, maybe, just like other Baja residents, “The Great Hot Summer of 2008” had caused him to pack his bags.

Yesterday, I was walking through the garden, enjoying the smells of a multitude of different flowers carried on the crisp breeze and the feel of the sun on my skin. I was completely immersed in the experience. As I moved toward the edge of the garden, I turned round and, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of my Iguana, majestically preening himself in the sun. I had only found him when I was not consciously looking for him.

I have always found it interesting that various parts of the human eye behave in different but complementary manners. The center of your field of vision allows you to examine items in detail, but requires high light levels to operate. In dim lighting, the center of the eye sees little. Peripheral vision, on the other hand, allows for little detail, but operates well in minimal illumination. When you are walking through a dark place, rather than looking straight ahead, you can see better if you navigate using the vague impressions caught at the edge of your vision. I liken central vision to intellectual analysis of a situation, while peripheral vision is more akin to reliance on feelings and perceptions.

Such thoughts led me to a broader context for my encounter with the Iguana. I, like many others down here in this quiet, tumultuous town, am searching desperately for a path to meaning, for some direction to follow. Despite much soul-searching and concentrated analysis, I have yet to find an answer. Maybe I would be better off stopping looking for the answer, just as I gave up looking for the Iguana, and, one day, it may appear?

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Lessons in Transience

If there is one thing at which Todos Santos excels, it is in teaching you about the transience of all things. Overlaid on the seasonal ebb and flow of part-time residents is a surface patter of splashy arrivals and departures of vacationers and day-trippers. And below this surface noise, Todos Santos will still remind you that nothing is forever. Stable relationships dissolve into shattered angry pieces. Long term residents who form the bedrock of the community move on, to other places or from this world forever.

It’s hard not to get disturbed by this churning, to realize that there is nothing to which you can anchor, even as you accept its inevitability and the new opportunities that change can bring.

When I am in danger of being overwhelmed, I find that the ocean can sometimes bring a sense of integration and peace.

Constant liquidity

A draftsman’s horizon demarks perfectly
and constantly
the break between distant desaturated sky
and inky concentrated water

The naked beach is still here
as it was days, years before
Before I came here

All serve to lull the innocent observer
Into dreams of mathematical precision and certainty

But look closer
The placid sea erupts in a tempest of fleeing fish
and is still again
as if they never were
And the sand that I sit on
Is not the sand that was here yesterday

And yet, somehow
With the tuneless whistle of the afternoon breeze
caressing my ears
Somehow, for a brief while
The incongruities resolve mindlessly
And a flicker of peace crosses my consciousness.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Travelling Engagement

In our recent travels, we’ve encountered many young people. Indeed, Antigua seems to be the portal of choice for Europeans and Israelis on the Great Central / South American tour. We met a number whose enthusiasm, commitment to immersing themselves in the culture and sheer adventurousness drew me like a magnet. For them, everything was new, an adventure, full of promise. They were open to any opportunity and feared nothing (probably due to lack of experience, coupled with an age-appropriate denial of their own mortality). Their energy was like a refreshing shower, and I was highly envious. My envy was no doubt exacerbated by my own history – accelerating through school to go straight to Oxford as an immature student, and then headlong into work just after my 21st birthday. I never took time out to grow, partly because it wasn’t thought of in the circles in which my family moved, but also because I saw it then as a waste of time when there was apparently so much more to do in the formal, serious world.

Given my time over again, I like to think that I would be amongst the throngs of such young adventurous and curious travellers, and sometimes I pine for the lost opportunity.

It was therefore somewhat a surprise to me when a young German lady told us that, though she was off on a fascinating adventure through colonial towns in Mexico, she was concerned over the cost and the consequent limitations of her trip, being a student, and she indicated that we, being older, were in many ways more fortunate.

There are, of course, some benefits to adventuring when you are older. You have accumulated a greater context with which to view the way other people live their lives. You can appreciate more the luxury of time to take it in, as compared to simply taking such opportunities for granted. You may have some more money (but, just as likely, you are far more concerned about losing it). On the flip side, though, having context also means that not everything is a brand-new and life- jolting experience, you are very aware of your mortality and you pay dearly for health insurance. Your tolerance of spartan accommodations may also not be as accommodating as that of a young adult. But most galling, for me, is that you don’t feel you have the youthful luxury of an open-ended fertile time of infinite possibilities waiting for you at the end of your travels in which you can grow and harvest the seed germs you collected in your travels. The end of your journey on Earth is visible, brought into high relief by the passing of parents and friends.

Maybe, though, on reflection, the real issue in benefiting from travel is not your age, but the mindfulness with which you travel. We encountered plenty of young travellers who were travelling with minds wide shut, only marginally engaged in the experience of which they could be part. Guatemala, Honduras, San Salvador, Mexico – it really didn’t matter. They were on a time out, and pleasure was their guiding principle. Families jet down to all-inclusive resorts in exotic locations just to chill out in sunshine and never see the country in which their pleasure palace is located. And at the other end of the spectrum, older people can cruise to many different countries and return with nothing more substantive than a few extra pounds and a collection of photographs to prove they were there in body, if not in mind.

I think that travel only broadens the mind if you let it, if you are observant and mindful of the differences and reflect on what that means to your life. You don’t need to travel endlessly to enjoy that dislocation. For us, the deep and colourful divergences in culture between North America and Todos Santos, and the more subtle grey shadings between Comox and life in the bustling city of Calgary, provide rich sustenance for reflection.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Living under the volcano

For most of the time we were in Guatemala, we stayed in Antigua, a photogenic and very small colonial city which contains the highest density of old churches, monasteries and nunneries that I have seen in my travels. Antigua is dominated by two large volcanoes, one active (“Fire”), and the other inactive (“Water”), to the extent that it is quite hard to take a photo without capturing one or other looming above the foreground.

Antigua was the third attempt at a capital city for Guatemala. The second, a few kilometres away and closer to the Water volcano, was wiped out when the crater cracked and created a huge mudslide, just a few years after the city had been founded.

Indeed, it is hard to understand the logic in building and living in such an unstable place, where, even recently, there have been major earthquakes and other seismic activity. Today, life and commerce just roll on to the accompaniment of random puffs of smoke and fire from the Fire volcano. Perhaps because the volcanoes have been there for so long, people just accept them, though many locals still carry scars inside from personal losses in the devastating 1976 earthquake and are aware, at a deeper level, of the precariousness of their existence.

So why has Antigua been a locus for people? Part of it is probably the flip side of the danger, in the incredible fertility of the volcanic soil. With great risk comes the possibility of great reward. Add to this the wonderful ability of the human mind to discount older experience and bathe in the light of the moment, and it becomes easier to see the pressures that lead to this abstractly illogical place.

Although I revelled in the spectacular vistas that the volcanoes created, I found the omnipresent dark backdrop somewhat foreboding, for reasons that, at first, I couldn’t quite grasp. And then it hit me. Over the last year we’ve all come to see that we have all been living in the shadow of a fulminating volcano, which is finally beginning to erupt. A volcano built on years of rampant and unbridled capitalism, fed by greed and ineptness. We’ve all built our houses at the foot of this abomination, enjoying some of the rich fruits that come from fertile soils and, for many years, we’ve gone about our lives barely conscious of the structure that towers over all of us and has become much larger than any human can comprehend.

Now that the first eruptions have occurred, it is as if the clouds around the summit have cleared and we can all see this monster for the first time. And, to one degree or another, we all cower paralysed in the anticipation of what happens next. The devastation will take apparently random paths, just as in the tragedy that obliterated much of Ciudad Viejo, but spared houses just a kilometre away. In Comox, the significant population of Air force workers and retirees may see their lives continue as before. Locals who drifted into construction because it was the only place to make decent money are already finding that the hot spring of opportunity has dried up, just as the mineral springs in towns around Antigua dried up in the last major earthquake. The long shadow of the volcano has already stretched its probing tentacles to sleepy and sunny Todos Santos. There are fewer tourists, and certainly less people who want to spend serious money. I am sure, whatever path the lava takes, the blight of stalls all selling the same genuine Mexican “made in Indonesia” serapes will continue, much as, even after a nuclear blast, cockroaches will thrive. But the more innovative businesses, already feeling the pinch of increased rents due to landlords’ naïve belief in extrapolation of the past, may not survive the onslaught of this unnatural disaster.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Speaking in tongues

We’ve just returned from a trip to Guatemala where we attended an immersion Spanish language school for two weeks. For the first week we lived with a Guatemalan family to enhance our learning and get to understand the culture a little more.

My Spanish language skills have certainly improved. The most interesting part of the trip for me, however, was experiencing what happens when you are required to communicate in a foreign language. At first, you can only catch snippets of others conversations, and can’t join in. As you improve, you can converse simplistically and communicate enough to function in life. However, I and my fellow international students never got past the point where we conversed about anything but stories, requests, likes and dislikes. Our interactions with each other and with locals never got beneath surface exchanges of practical information. I found this to be excruciatingly frustrating.

There is one obvious reason for the monomolecular depth of our interactions. We simply didn’t have the vocabulary, or the practised command of the language, to make ourselves understood. But on reflection, deeper than that, I think, lies the issue of cultural differences. To be able to communicate fully around foundational beliefs and feelings I think you need some form of “cultural resonance”. Far greater than the language gap, the cultural dissonances between Mexico / Guatemala and the societies with which we are familiar limit the extent to which we can truly understand each other.

The use of the Spanish language in both Mexico and Guatemala hints at the culture gap. Both countries use subjunctive tenses pervasively to infer uncertainty about future outcomes, to be less direct about requests of others, to allow that you yourself may not have full knowledge and to avoid, at all costs, having others lose face. Perhaps this (and the easily observed reluctance to ever say "no" to your requests, even if they have no intention of taking action) comes from a history of oppression. Whatever its source, the cultural attitude permeates society. In England, the use of subjunctive is almost dead, and in North America, the “no holds barred” approach to business hardly allows for the existence of such a form of language.

So there were specific reasons for the challenges in communication in Guatemala. My frustration with the narrative flavour of my interactions was, I suspect, however, magnified by echoes of some challenges when interacting with English-speaking people in both Todos Santos and Comox. In these cases, the lack of depth of interactions can hardly be blamed on linguistic dexterity. Leaving aside those cases where we simply don’t like each other, I am led to ponder whether more subtle cultural disparities are often at play. We have found it strange that we often seem to “click” more easily with Canadians in Todos Santos than with some others. Although Canadians and Americans share the same continent (and are immersed in the same onslaught of media), the longer we spend together, the more fundamental the differences in general belief systems appear to us. As a simple example, Canadians may complain about taxes, but most of us do expect to be taxed in order that at least some of the inequities in society can be addressed. We have been surprised to see that many American friends, though delightful people and models of integrity, compassion and charity in their personal lives, see nothing wrong in evading taxes. Such core differences in beliefs can make it difficult to communicate heart to heart.

And why would I have problems in Comox? After all, there are few “foreigners” in Comox, so surely we have a common cultural base? Of course, part of the issue is that my expectations are often unreasonable. Some people just don’t like to open up quickly to others, while I demand instant connections. In other cases, though, I wonder if it is still cultural differences that are pulling the strings. We moved to Comox from Calgary, Alberta, a hotbed of belief in personal initiative and in the ability for anyone to do anything, given an idea and commitment. British Columbia has a long history of belief in benevolent government and organizations to protect people against the (admittedly real) ravages of rampant capitalism. Such core attitudes do not always mix well and allow effective sharing of feelings!

All this would suggest that the safe approach to life is to surround yourself with locally-bred clones. That may be safe, but it isn’t life. Exposing yourself to different world beliefs and different people may be uncomfortable, but it forces you to challenge your own beliefs, to think about who you are, and therefore to grow. But I suspect that I may still be left with an unresolved thirst for connection.

Monday, 17 November 2008

The changing of the palette

I have been waking up much too early recently, before the light seeps into the sky. The arrival of the day heralds a remarkable and ephemeral series of changes in the colours of Todos Santos

Colour Shift

The dew-laden earth breathes subtle cool airs
Fragrant with possibilities
As black turns to diluted grey
Tentative whispers of the pre-dawn town are amplified
I lie in bed, watching colour leach infinitesimally into the sky
Now a deathly grey blue that has no name
Infinite and empty
Save for projected motes floating in my eyes
As the sun leaps over the Sierra de la Lagunas
The emptiness is pierced
By a myriad of fluttering birds
All unique, yet the same in the gilding of the freshly minted light
That now ignites the ochre courtyard walls
In searing contrast to the still cool sky
It’s over in a few minutes
The sun in clear control of the sky
Shocking it into the accustomed piercing blue
Birds regain their rightful plumage
And Todos Santos assumes its daytime palette.

“Oh I do like to be beside the seaside…”

In resonance with the words of the old British song, I have always been drawn towards the waters edge. There is something about the union of seawater and land that attracts me time and again.

There are indeed some obvious and probably universally relevant reasons why the seaside is so seductive. The sensuous sounds of the water lapping the sand, the constant hypnotic motion of the water, the cool contrast of the liquid with hard, hot land all mesmerise and attract magnetically. Presumably, the universal appeal of seaside is the cause of the huge premium that “seaview” adds to real estate.

Recently, however, I have thought more about the deep attraction that the seaside has for me, and my perceptions have evolved. This week I was standing on the ridge above the close-knit hamlet of Las Tunas, on the north side of Todos Santos. I relaxed in the cool breezes that the ridge attracts, and enjoyed the familiar panoramic vista of the azure ocean. This time, though, an element of boredom crept into my consciousness. There was nothing beyond the strip of blue, no distant shore, no boats, no clouds, nothing to provide context and variety. Rationally comparing the engaging quality of the water view to that from our place in Comox, there really is no contest. In Comox, the constantly changing water colour and wave motion is complemented by a backdrop of coastal mountains, capped for much of the year by a frosting of snow that peeks in and out from a corona of fluffy clouds. As the seasons change, so does the variety of seabirds that forage and take shelter in and around the lee of the peninsular. Ferries meander back and forth, intersecting with pleasure boats, and at night sparkling fairytale cruise ships pass by on their way to and from Alaska.

This time, instead of the ocean, my attention was drawn to the opposite direction, a vista over cardon cactus forests towards the magnificent Sierra Laguna range. A view that I previously saw as pretty, but paling into insignificance with the ocean view, even though I knew that the colours changed magically throughout the day and through moonlit nights. This time I saw the magic, and realized that, unconventionally, a house built there should be oriented to take advantage of that panorama.

So why the change in perception? Thinking back to my childhood, “the seaside” was where we, as a typical English family, always went for our vacations. The seaside, for me, is synonymous with escaping from day-to-day life; being part of a family together and at ease, enjoying rare treats. It represents a frozen, intense and pleasurable set of memories.

When I lifted that filter, some of that magical attraction evaporated. I still find the sea draws me, and I enjoy the experience of raw energy and elemental interaction of water and sand, the susurration of the surf, and the cooling breezes. But the intensity of feeling is diminished and my ability to lose myself in the feelings evoked by the experience, rather than perhaps the moment itself, has gone. While, intellectually, I see the value in seeing things as they really are, the loss of the magic, just like finding out that Father Christmas doesn’t exist, in some way diminishes life.

Perhaps, sometimes, reality is overrated?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008


We arrived back in Todos Santos a week ago, after a long and relatively uneventful journey. What was once an adventure, full of anticipation of new flavours, sights and smells, has mutated into a mundane and tiring commute. We disgorged ourselves from the vehicle into the onslaught of the final gasps of summer: oppressive heat (magnified by our tightly sealed concrete house), humidity that caused our eyes to smart from ceaseless streams of sweat, and no breath of wind.

Our arrival appeared to drive out the soporific demons of summer who had well overstayed their welcome, for the following morning there was a perceptible reduction in humidity and the air smelled clean and fresh. So we began the slow and labour-intensive process of rousing the house from its summer hibernation; a process that absorbs all concentration and provides an antidote to days of sitting in the same position in the vehicle.

As I cleaned the accumulated dust, leaves and algae from the summer rains out of the fountain, I noticed that the plastic parts of the relatively new pump has disintegrated, crumbling and cracking in my hands as though attacked by the Andromeda virus. In fact, looking at my outdoor work shoes, I noticed that their plastic parts were also disintegrating prematurely. Restoring the fountain to operation required some ingenuity, but the transformation of flexible functionality into aged decrepitude made me ponder the effects of Baja, as compared to those of Vancouver Island, on both things and people.

Baja is not a gentle place. Yes, the winter sunshine and the seashore are seductive, conjuring up images of never ending margaritas, relaxing on a lounge chair, with no worries in life. Reality is a little different. The overall climate is brash, and takes its toll on both things and people. While my little pump might still be enjoying the mild dampness and gentle light of Comox, the heat and UV here conspired to strip the parts of their plasticizers, leaving the core molecules exposed and subject to decay. Veterans of Baja frequently appear, to put it in polite terms, to be well-weathered by the sun, and few have a complexion that is comparable to the gold standard of an “English Rose”.

The climate, though, is only the visible part of the brashness of the place. As has been pointed out by many, when you come here for more than a holiday visit, you will, at some point, be confronted by yourself, in all your flawed purity. The relative isolation that ex -pats live in, surrounded by a culture that is, strangely enough, “foreign”, the lack of traditional diversions like shopping and sports, and the splintered micro communities combine to cause a space in which there is nothing but yourself. It may happen quickly, or it may be delayed by projects such as building the “dream home” or immersion in sybaritic pleasure, but it will come. And the reaction to this human equivalent of extreme UV immersion is where plasticity is tested.

Some become brittle, needing to protect themselves from themselves by immersion in good deeds or their drug of choice. Some run, blaming everything but themselves for the failure to thrive. And some manage to flex, remain plastic, and evolve to a different understanding of themselves.

On our way down this year, we met some of the casualties of such engagement; long-term Baja residents who had finally been broken by the demands and isolation of the last summer, and were returning to more temperate climes and culture.

Vancouver Island, by contrast, is a much more civilised environment; a place where the greatest challenge may be dealing with days of grey dampness, and where it is much easier to slide into rusting through your life and never waking up. A safe place where timidity is ok – no, probably lauded. Where damp lubrication substitutes for plasticity, and where our home comes to life effortlessly after winter hibernation . It does have its own window into your soul, but it politely beckons, unlike the “in-your face” demands of Baja.

Time will tell whether we have the right stuff to make it in Todos Santos. We will, undoubtedly however, be different people as a result of the experience.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

A Question of Balance

As you drive along the island highway at this time of year, it’s difficult not to be transfixed by the contrasting bursts of soothing violet and brash yellows from the lupins and gorse that grow rampantly along the roadside. Gorse happens to be classified as a noxious weed, brought to the island by some enterprising individual and, finding it to its liking, spreading across all untended ground to the exclusion of other, less aggressive (and therefore much more Canadian) plants. Judging by its ease of propagation, and proximity to gorse, the wild lupin is also probably an unwanted guest.

Having critiqued their heritage, the combination of these two plants, collocated and flowering at the same time, adds a unique, dramatic and yet comfortable counterpoint to the muted greens and greys of the Vancouver Island landscape.

As I drove along, I realized that I had seen this colour combination before. Not in the wild, but in the colours we chose to paint the walls in our house in Mexico. This echo was not deliberate, for, at the time, we were living in Calgary where such flower combinations do not naturally exist. We chose pale shades of violet to provide a sense of calm and coolness in the main rooms, and its nemesis, bright, succulent yellow for liveliness and a balance in the kitchen and smaller places. Our choice was unconventional for typical “Ex Pat” homes in Mexico, but suited our style and moods. Was our choice perhaps a premonition of moving to the island?

On a broader note, the sight and the impact of the balanced opposites caused me to think of the need for balance. Either flower, on its own, could be overpowering or monotonous, in the same way that uniform application of such colours in a house would lose impact. The balancing of the opposites, being almost hard for the eye to hold in focus at the same time, is what gives each part its impact, and results in a feeling of completeness.

The same, I think, holds for life. Obsessive focus on one aspect of life can only lead to a diminution of the impact of that facet. Balancing activities that make completely different demands on aspects of ourselves allows us, in theory, to savour the taste of each better, and to enjoy a more fulfilling life.

The desire for balance, and to exercise parts of my brain that were atrophying in the slough of retirement, was part of what drove me to dip my toes back into the waters of consulting. The desire and the potential rewards were real. Practically, however, the balancing act is hard to pull off. Just as the different spectrum of colour in the flower combination causes the eye to struggle to keep both in focus, so does the clamouring pull of work suck you in stealthily and away from the unassuming quiet of contemplation. And suddenly, you are back at being a Worker rather than a person, with little energy, imagination or wonder left for the rest of life. Balance goes out the window, and you are no better adjusted and adapted than before.

The lesson for me is perhaps that, while desirable, achieving balance takes work and commitment. The universe (and my life in particular) seems entropic and unstable, so the seemingly effortless and calming vision of stable balance paradoxically requires continuous conscious action and discipline to maintain.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

The Sounds of Silence

Commuting between Calgary and Comox over the past few weeks, I’ve become acutely aware how elusive true silence has become. My sensitivities have been sharpened, no doubt, by the frenzied increase in construction activity around us as the builder gallops towards having the new condos next door ready for the summer migration of pasty Albertans to Vancouver Island (oil-revenue drenched Albertans being the salve for all economic ills and a new resource for BC to plunder).

Even when the construction stops, though, our rural outpost in Comox is not silent. Since we’re right on the water, the sounds of the ocean permeate our life. There’s the reassuring regularity of the stately arrival and departure of the Powell River ferry to mark the passing of the day. In an angry North West gale, waves thrash the shoreline mercilessly with sharp staccato beats. Even when it is completely calm, as it was for several days last week, wavelets lazily lick the shoreline with wet sloppy kisses, and the quiet is broken by the sound of loons calling mournfully, or seagulls routinely complaining. And, when the ferry is gone, and the birds have finally gone to sleep, under the quietness you will often still hear the dull bass drone of a distant tugboat wearily dragging its laden barge in the Straights.

Inside our home, with all the windows closed, there’s still no silence. The refrigerator purrs, thermostats and valves click on and off and there are gentle welcome whirring sounds as the hot water circulates in the heating system.

Calgary has its own unique sounds. Staying in the refined heights of the best and most refined subdivision in town, Mount Royal, I am now acutely aware of the susurration of traffic that continues all night in the surrounding city, and the intermittent, but strangely welcome interruption of whistling trains as they jostle their way through the city centre. The bird calls are different here from the seashore, but still luminous in their clarity, and able to evoke strong memories of my years in Calgary.

I’ve written before of the clamour of sounds in the centre of Todos Santos. Out on el Otro Lado, you will miss some of these human sounds of Mexico, but will have your ears pounded by the surf at times, and jarred by the continuous profitable sound of construction during the day.

There is one place, however, near Todos Santos, where I did experience moments of complete silence. In the Sierra Lagunas, when the wind died, and the birds rested, there was no sound but the buzz of internal life in my ears. It was, strangely, quite scary, perhaps because silence has become so rare, but also since it reminded me of how we are, in essence so very alone in this world. No matter how many activities we busy ourselves with, and how many people we surround ourselves with to submerge the emptiness, we are the sole quiet traveller in this journey of our life.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

In Transition

Regular readers of my blog will have noticed a hiatus in the postings. The last while has been consumed by the trauma of transitioning from Todos Santos to our summer home in Comox. Unlike many others, we drive back and forth between the two locations. This provides a fascinating period of adjustment from one environment to the next, instead of the rude shock of rapid plane travel.

Having said that, I am still adjusting to the nature of this very different place. So what have I noticed as immediate differences between the two locations?

The first difference that hit both of us on our return is the absence of dust. Polvo in Todos Santos is part of life. The fine-grained taupe dust is omnipresent. It comes from dirt streets, stirred into motion by the antics of macho drivers, or from the ubiquitous construction around town. It permeates every house, even when the windows are closed. You just get used to wiping down the kitchen counters several times a day, washing down leaves of plants, and watching the haze over the well-traveled streets in town. In Comox, it just isn’t there. When we arrived in our condo, it was as if we had just left. No thick residue to wipe away. It is only the absence of something that makes you realize how much it affected your day-to-day life.

Secondly, it’s interesting how different the experience of Spring is in the two locations. In Comox, Spring is a clarion call against the wastes of Winter. Trees burst into full blossom; daffodils and hyacinths blaze against the dull wet ground and scent the air. In the marshes, externally beautiful (but awful smelling – hence the term “skunk lily) yellow lilies emerge from the decomposed trash of last years vegetation. There is Spring in Todos Santos, but it is hidden. The desert is still waiting for water, but in the cultivated parts, if you look closely, you will see mango flowers drop and baby mangoes grow daily, and citrus trees sprout new growth. The effect is somewhat lost, though, in the year-round lushness.

Perhaps the most interesting difference that hits me, though, as I evolve internally into “Comox Vic”, is the quality of the light here, and the impact that has on how you view life. I’ve written several times about the intensity and clarity of the light in Todos Santos. The vividness of colours is as if you are viewing everything as an original Kodachrome transparency. While it is beautiful, it is also constant. The spotlight of the sun is on almost every day.

The light in Comox is much more subtle. Clouds come and go constantly, and the sun is gentler, casting a more liquid light on everything. We are fortunate to live in a condo a few feet from a steeply shelving beach with a breath-taking 180° view over the Straights, bounded on one side by Mount Washington and Campbell River, on the other by Powell River, and as a backdrop, the snow-capped mainland coastal mountains. In between there is sea, and a plethora of islands. As the clouds and showers move across the sea, I have been spellbound by the changes that appear in the view. The sun shines through gaps in the clouds to highlight a cliff here, an island there, and as it sets, the pink snowcap on a mountain. Details leap out at you in a way that you didn’t see before. You realize that, in normal life, it’s easy to just glide along and not pay real attention. So while less brash, colourful and dramatic than Todos Santos, the gentle light of Comox has its own wonders.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Floating away

Earlier this month, I wrote about the change that was beginning in Todos Santos, as the transient population started to drift away to the North. At the time, I was writing about something conceptual; an intellectual understanding rather than an experienced feeling.

Now, as we enter the last few days, I have floated to the surface from my engagement with life in Todos Santos, and the experience is quite different. While I am still here in many ways, my mind is also in Comox, where I live for the “summer” months, and Calgary, where I will probably be working part-time, reprising my life as a business strategy consultant.

The experience of having my roots here pulled forcibly from the ground, ready for replanting elsewhere, is certainly dislocating. At one simple level, I see life here in a more detached manner. I am fully aware that the thoughts and issues that preoccupy much of my time here, and the general pace of life in Todos Santos, where taking a few days to paint a gate or to recoat the roof is no big deal, will all become dreamlike as I enter a different location. I’ll still be aware of the way of life here, but it will appear incongruous in my new location, and I will marvel that I could have got so immersed in such an environment.

There is something deeper, though, that nags at me. For “Todos Santos Vic” is quite different from “Comox Vic”, and especially “Calgary Vic”. If we were to meet, we might see some physical resemblance (depending on the quality of haircut I get in the different places!), but we would probably be disturbed at the differences in the way we think and act.

I was hit with this quite forcibly when I sat down to prepare a proposal for some potential work in Calgary. Not that long ago, I would have zipped this off with ease, cutting to the key issues almost unconsciously. This time, it was as if the neural networks involved in this process were silted up. It wasn’t that I had become stupid, nor that I had forgotten all my years of experience. The engine was running, but the wheels didn’t want to move.

It was at that point I realized how much immersion in this place can change you. Todos Santos is a place where no one really cares about your past. Moreover, it sets no expectations of what you should be when you are here (other than being a little offbeat, not quite a “vanilla” person). Other places around here have, to my view, clearer expectations. Cabo expects you to party, or just make lots of money. San Jose is for staid vacationers. In Los Barriles, you had better be a fisherman or a wind surfer, and in the La Paz of at least a few years ago, you would be a yachtie. If you exclude the surfer subculture here (and I can’t swim, so that’s not a good target for me), then I don’t think there’s a definite mould to which you are expected to conform in Todos Santos. Many people take advantage of this freedom to reinvent themselves (and the more adventurous do so not only in respect of their current life, but also in weaving great stories of their splendiferous past). I, unconsciously, allowed myself to nurture my writing, and my ability to be present and to be less frantic.

The experience with preparing a consulting proposal, however, reminded of the truth that any good strategy consultant will tell you (and I was / am one). You can’t focus, successfully, on everything. Concentrating on something means that you have to defocus on something else. The growth that I have experienced in the ease of writing creatively and observing life, comes at the expense of being able to quickly and concisely slice to the core of a business issue and set out entirely logical paths to address the problems.

If it were simply that the skill sets deployed changed, I wouldn’t care much. Yes, the transition between states is painful, but within a short period of time, I will be able to function as effectively in the business world as I did before. What I think is nagging at me is that, perhaps, the changes in functional activities spread to the whole way I look at life and my behaviours, even to the core of who I am. Dealing with business in a fast paced environment such as Calgary, or engaging in lots of outdoor activities (as in Comox) will probably change key parts of me from the current Vic that is immersed in the cerebral, creative aspects of Todos Santos. If I can appear to change so dramatically, just who is the real me?

Of course, Robert Hall, the local Dharma leader, would probably say that the impression of any elements of a “me” is just an illusion to protect the fragile “El Yo” from understanding that it doesn’t have any true existence. It certainly appears to me that I am a more fluid being than I had once thought. Or perhaps adrift on a fluid sea, floating away?

Monday, 24 March 2008

Life in Shadows

One thing that fascinates me about Todos Santos is the way that shadows here take on a life of their own. It is, no doubt, an artifact of the intensity of the sun, and the clarity of the air, but it is as if the darker side of everything is made animate and evident. In Comox, the often present moisture gives an entirely different perspective.

Todos Santos lies on the Tropic of Cancer, so as the summer solstice approaches, the size of your shadow diminishes until, on the fateful day, at the right time, the sun lies directly overhead and your dark projection is banished – temporarily!


As an immutable sun rises
Over the elemental landscape
Life in Todos Santos bifurcates
Into radiant light and stygian darkness
Each object or animal
Accompanied by a darker self
Related, but distinctly separate
Entities unto themselves
In the vacuum of transparent air
That fills the town

As pelicans glide slowly above the sand
Angelic in direct and reflected light
Their flightless partners
Hold dark dominion over the beach
Razor cut outlines pacing their illuminated mates
But never meeting
While inland
Sharp projections of telephone wires
Lie in wait on dusty roads
To trip unwary travelers

But soon, very soon
Before the summer solstice
Kills my personal dark companion
I must return
To the land of subtlety
Where strong shadows are replaced
By a watery reflection
So easily spooked by a breath of wind.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Fear and Loathing in Todos Santos

I’ve written before about the paradox that, if you think you are escaping the issues of the world when you come to Todos Santos, you’ll find that they’ve come along with you, just to keep you company. One reason that people come to this little town is that they think they can leave behind all the crime that bedevils the urban complexes of America (or Canada). So they buy an ocean view lot in the desirable desert areas north of town where nary a Mexican can be seen (except the gardeners and maids that they have to drive in), build the cosy little 2500 sq ft. seaside cottage of their dreams, furnish it with high-end fittings and sleek designer Indonesian furniture, and then expect to live a life of peaceful bucolic pleasure.

Unfortunately, life in Todos Santos is not always so magical. This year there have been several break-ins reported, mostly north of town in the areas where most Gringos live.

This news has caused some quite different reactions amongst the ex-pat community. One common reaction is indignation and astonishment that this has happened. “But this was always such a nice town” many bemoan, “We never needed to (and shouldn’t have to) lock our doors”. It seems somehow inconceivable to them that Todos Santos should experience crime. Cabo, yes, but what else would you expect in such an uncouth den of iniquity.

Quiet reflection, however, might reveal that there is no reason why Todos Santos shouldn’t experience many of the same issues as any other place. Television, the internet, improved physical access to and from the US and other parts of Mexico, and the huge influx of development and people means that Todos Santos is no longer living in an isolated bubble.

In addition, rational thought might suggest that placing luxurious homes close to a town where the majority of people are still poor might just be an overwhelming temptation to those who are less fortunate. Just imagine that you are a local Mexican youth who sees (relatively) incredible wealth that is beyond their practical reach, and that desired possessions sit in houses that are essentially in the middle of nowhere, and are often vacant. It is, perhaps, incredible that the robbery problems are not more endemic.

It is not as if the “good old days” really were so perfect either. According to friends who have had a home here for almost 2 decades, there have always been some robberies. There was no internet newsletter to broadcast the news, and the “valuables” in the homes might not have been as financially valuable as those available to miscreants now. The difficulty of replacing stolen items was, however, probably greater.

So, rationally, we shouldn’t be surprised that there are robberies here, just as everywhere. That includes my small, sleepy hometown of Comox, British Columbia, where there has been a spate of repeated robberies in the “safe” retirement complexes that have sprung up over the Valley.

Anyone who has been robbed is certainly entitled to feelings of outrage at the violation of their private space and possessions. The recent reports in Todos Santos have, however, sparked such fear and outrage I wonder if the sense of violation runs deeper. I think the violation they are expressing may also relate to being forced to awake from a pleasant dream, in which it is possible to find a “Paradise” where the cares of the world have no place.

Some people here (mostly who have not experienced the robberies directly) have had a quite different reaction. They plead publicly for others to stop complaining, to only proclaim the positive side of life here, and to let them relax and enjoy the delights of Todos Santos. In their positivity, they are perhaps expressing a loathing of the realities of modern life. In essence, they would like to dream the magic a little longer. And what better place to do that than in this little Pueblo Magico?

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Day Trippers

Around mid morning, they start to arrive. Driving warily through the outskirts of town in their rented car, eyes looking every which way, or disgorged from the bowels of tour buses, the Day Trippers are back in town.

The Species “Tourist”, sub genus “Day Tripper” is seasonal, with peak migrations around Christmas and President’s week. They can be recognized easily by their plumage which is entirely different from that displayed by the local species: usually clean golf shirts, shorts or golf pants with sneakers for the male, variations on cruise wear for the females, and always a camera clutched in one hand and deployed at the first sign of Real Mexican Life. Some specialized water-borne tribes (rumored to live on the floating cities that pull into Cabo San Lucas bay daily) have little labels with names to make identification of each other easier, and in case they become lost in the huge metropolis of Todos Santos. Day Trippers can only be found within the core three streets in town unofficially designated as the real historical core (though officially it extends way beyond this area into parts believed actually to be occupied by local Mexicans).

Day Trippers cluster around some key landmarks in town: The Hotel California, the other Hotel California restaurant and t-shirt shop (no connection) across the street, the Santa Fe restaurant (It’s THE place to eat, dear” ), and the seemingly-without-end tourist knickknack stores, where they can buy Genuine Mexican Sarapes lovingly handcrafted in Indonesia and other such gems. These stores have taken a leaf from Starbuck’s playbook and taken it to the ultimate level. Not content with a store on every corner, they fill every available niche in town, swallowing up new mini malls whole.

By early afternoon, when their initial picture snapping frenzy is over, it’s possible to engage Day Trippers in conversation. Usually, the comments on the town fall into one of two camps. Either it’s “What a wonderfully cute town you live in!”, or it’s “Where is the town? “There’s nothing here!”. Of course, neither is a true reflection of what Todos Santos residents believe about the place.

Cuteness is a characteristic of a superficial view of Todos Santos as if it were an anachronistic relic or living museum. Of course, it is likely that some parties in town (the developers) would like to play on this perspective, turning the town center into a veritable heritage village, devoid of mess, cars and trucks, and with a showpiece authentically reengineered traditional Zocolo that probably no-one will use (just as now). Maybe they could hire locals to dress in authentic Baja costumes and wander around town to provide more “cute” photo opportunities?

Residents here are aware of the downside of the “cuteness”, like the ever-present dust, the limited (though vastly improved) availability of day-to-day merchandise amongst the sarapes, the noise of dogs, music and macho trucks. They have to learn to live with these characteristic of a real Mexican town.

The view of Todos Santos being a place devoid of content or value is also a product of a filtered perspective. Certainly it is no Las Vegas and does not have the venues to provide continual frenetic entertainment. The treasures of Todos Santos are hidden from the sight of these Day Trippers. They would need to go both physically deeper into and around the town, and internally deeper to appreciate things that do not appear on Entertainment Tonight. The song of birds, the light filtering through trees, the vista of ocean and endless beach – these are all things that Day Trippers cannot see. Maybe they wouldn’t even want to.

So, by late afternoon, when the rental cars and the buses have carted away the last of the Species, I often wonder what warped pictures of Todos Santos they take away in their heads. Even more, though, I wonder just who amongst us, if anyone, does have a real, unfiltered picture of the place?

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Magical Places

There are some places that, to me, exude a special magical essence which reduces me to silence, in awe of what I see as their natural sacredness. One of them is Palm Beach, just outside Todos Santos. As you approach it on a dusty, single track road, the sweat drips off your brow, the warm air blowing uselessly through the car in a futile attempt to be cooled. The sides of the road are desiccated, leafless, waiting patiently for the still distant summer rain. Gnarled ancient Cardon cacti reach to the sky, providing the only trace of colour in the landscape.

Suddenly, you drop down into a different world, a world of green and lushness. When you step out of the car, the first thing you note is the gentle susurration of wind in the grove of tall palms, mixed with the sound of cicadas and, barely audible, a gentle roar of the hidden surf. Then, you notice the smell. The warm smell of pregnant greenery, of lushness, tinged with just a slight coolness of salty ocean air.

As you walk toward the water, the balance of smells swings towards salty decay, away from green life. The sound of surf becomes more distinct. Suddenly, you emerge from the confines of the still, shady grove to an open vista of flat grassy meadow, reeds, a clear stream running to join the sea, and clean golden sand between rocky headlands. It takes my breath away. More often than not, the beach is empty of humans. For some reason that I do not comprehend, many more people chose to park themselves at the “Cabo-lite” location of the Cerritos Beach Club, surrounded by others, music, jet skis and ultralight aircraft. Perhaps they fear the idea of being alone with themselves? There is no shortage, however, of animals that forage here, including the green heron, shown in the picture at the head of this entry.

My feelings of awe at Palm Beach are not shared by all people who might otherwise enjoy such surroundings. A friend finds the place dark and oppressive, as if there is an evil energy watching them. I simply feel at peace. It reminds me, perhaps, of succulent summers spent on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, in the Pacific Rim National Park.

Is there a place like this around Comox? My first reaction is that I find it hard to pick one, but that is because, on reflection, there are so many to choose from. There’s the breathtaking experience of walking through the thick dark woods in Seal Bay Park, and coming across a secret sunny pond, buzzing with dragonflies, hummingbirds, frogs and the rampant life of summer. Or maybe Nymph Falls on a bright October day, watching freshly arrived bright salmon valiantly try, again and again, to fight their way upstream against the thundering white rapids, on their final journey. Then there is Helliwell Park, on nearby Hornby Island, where you walk under damp first growth forest, emerging into a small strip of rare Madrona trees, which opens to short grassy meadows, at the top of vertiginous cliffs with a 270 degree view of the Georgia Straights.

One thing all these locations around Comox have in common is that they are preserved from development, held in trust for the public. There is recognition that we are only passing through, and that future generations should be able to enjoy the places, just as we do.

Coming back to Palm Beach, I fear the magic will soon be gone. There are plans to replace the quietness with condos, boutique hotels and restaurants, all to be constructed, I am sure, in a very ecologically sound manner. There are already white marker lines over some parts of the land at one end of the cove. More people will get to experience and enjoy the place, but in making it more accessible and usable, the very thing that makes it so special will, in my opinion at least, evaporate.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Blue Perfection

Although it is not even Spring yet, Todos Santos seems almost transported to Summertime, with day after day of perfection, as far as weather is concerned. The heat of the sun draws energy from everything. Casual visitors find it wonderful. But perhaps you can have too much of “wonderful”?

Lazy blues

On this blue lazy day
The sleepy sea can hardly stir itself
Slopping wavelets unconsciously
Against the static shore
The wind plays truant
Perhaps cuddling with the clouds
That are nowhere in sight
Only the valiant reliable sun rises, on time
Climbing into a sky that defines every blue
From pale faded horizon
To polarized intensity
Approaching violet

Roasting the hills to a golden ochre
Draining life and colour from the land
Till the Sierras fade
From dominating mountains
To stacked cardboard cutouts
Washed with shades of blue
A postcard background
To a perfect seaside

And yet
In this blue stained perfection
Admired by gawping tourists
I find myself blue
Missing the messy imperfections
That bring life
To reality.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Spring Back

There’s a palpable change in the energy in Todos Santos these days, as we slide deeper into March. You can feel it in the sudden thinness of the public social calendar, which was so hectic only a few weeks ago. The major events of the season are over (with the last one, the Home and Garden tour, having to be cancelled this year due to, well, mostly due to volunteers having too many other things to do). Drumming has come to an end, and there are no more intimate concerts on the horizon.

Why is this? The transient population is preparing to return to their summer haunts. The lure of distant family, the return of milder weather up North, and the call of taxes beckons people to leave Todos Santos and return to their real lives.

It’s not that there is no social activity. It becomes more localized, catching up on making good on such promises as “We really must have you round for dinner some time” when you suddenly notice that three months have gone by. Indeed, there’s somewhat of an air of desperation, trying to fit such events in to maintain your sense of being a person of your word when you are still busy dealing with the stragglers of visitors.

Days that used to be enjoyed in timeless or mindless recreation now need to be spent getting projects done that need to be completed before you leave, and in making arrangements for care of the place while you are away.

Conversations on the beach are no longer totally preoccupied about what houses have sold, but instead revolve around dates of departure. It is a time for goodbyes, perhaps until later in the year, perhaps for longer or even forever, as real life intervenes in the meantime.

There are still throngs of tourists snapping their way through town, and it will continue for some time after the transients have left. It’s Spring Break now and, although the main circus group heads for Cabo, some outliers, and those with parents in tow, end up here on excursions and maybe even to stay for a few days.

As the human energy changes, so does the natural energy. The sun rises earlier each day, gradually moving its entry point across the horizon. One of our bathroom windows is now dappled with sunshine filtering through mango leaves early in the morning, which I find delightfully peaceful. The sea fog is more persistent on many days, an indicator of the rising land temperatures. There’s an unusual haze in the afternoons from the relentless sun, and the whole land seems appropriately lazy.

As the month progresses, even the whales will decide to head to cooler waters with their new family members. They’re still around now, but in smaller numbers, and little by little, it will become less common to see several spouts from the beaches.

After we’ve gone, the issues that preoccupied us here will seem somewhat unreal, as we enter a completely different environment. And the winter will also seem somewhat surreal, an escape from reality that will be stored away as we get on with our “real lives”, only to re-emerge at the forefront of our minds as the threat of an awful wet, cold Fall approaches.

Friday, 29 February 2008

Sensations of Surf

Surfers have known it for some time, but many visitors to Todos Santos aren’t even aware of the magnificent and elemental surf that we can get here. Some visitors don’t even find the beaches (though the recent addition of a restaurant / bar / real estate office on Los Cerritos may help these people find their way)!

There is very little in the way of waves generated by storms thousands of miles away in the Pacific, and the long sandy beaches north of town. When the waves finally collide with the shore after their long journey, the results can be spectacular, and remind us of our essential insignificance.

Surf’s up

Nestled in town
In the quiet of deep night
I can hear it
As incongruous rhythmic susurration
An inversion of cool air
Magically reflecting sound
From far away beaches

On the scrubby hills
Perched high above the beach
I can feel it in my body
As tremulous movement
In the fundamental rock
Beneath my feet

But up close
I buckle
Under sensory overload
Ears assaulted by a constant roar
Counterpointed by percussive beats
That shake my body
As waves travelling from distant continents
Rear aggressively
In their final moments
To expire on the beach
The blue of the once placid sea
Littered with off-white foam
Detritus of explosive blasts
Of blinding white spray
Now drifting across the dunes
Licking my skin
With unaccustomed salt coolness

This is no forgiving sea
No gentle background
For casual recreation
It’s raw
It’s humbling
It’s part of the real Magic
Of Todos Santos.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Time Capsule

Sunday tastes different from any other day in Todos Santos. It is the only day when most people stop working; a day of rest and family time. One could almost believe that we have been transported back in time, as construction ceases, and the town regains its historic focus. Tomorrow the dominant earthmovers will again roam the land, houses will be built and sold, tourist vehicles will scour for places to park, and North American values will be rampant. But this one day is still an island in the gross commercialization that is overtaking Baja.

Historical Sunday

Even the sun seems reluctant to rise
On this namesake day
The town still somnambulant
Cocooned in the palpable blanket
Of silence that follows
Raucous parties of the night

Workers dream luxuriantly
In the rare freedom of time
Their monstrous terraforming steeds
Lie abandoned at the sides of roads
Blades dropped in unaccustomed silence
Repenting their weekly pillage

As the sun sleepily emerges
The cool air is scented
With the secret smoke of surreptitious fires
Birds chatter and warble, a cappella
Their voices soaring in the quiet
Freed from the background beat
Of rapacious commerce

Gentle bells or Tibetan chimes
Bring penitents to quiet contemplation
Or assimilation
As prelude to the day’s socialization

As the day warms
Pickups stumble from salutation to salutation
Carrying precious cargo
Of freshly scrubbed family
Visiting uncounted relatives
Or perhaps reclaiming the beaches
From ravaging tourists
For just a day
Decorous bathing juxtaposed
With strutting skimpy swimwear

Across the town
Men lean on parked pickups
As mobile bars
In earnest conversation
While ranchero music hides their chatter
From their industrious women

A single day
Where time shows its elasticity
Transporting the town
To a simpler state, long gone
Tiempo Magico
Before the return
Of Pueblo Tráfico.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Desert Time

Todos Santos, as in any typical winter, has not had any meaningful rain for several months now. Where once the sides of roads were crowded by thick, luxuriant green gasses and other weeds, there is now a brown collection of dried stems. But within our gardens, we maintain the illusion of Eden.

Water world

The touch of rain is a distant memory now
Or the hopeful artifact of a sun baked mind
Plants abandon unneeded frippery
As they draw juices inward to survive
Leaving brown husks of leaves
Illuminated by incongruous luminosity of flowers
The hope for a future generation

No sustenance now
Save the daily dose of dew
Funneled inward by cunning succulents
Culled by eons of Darwinian selection

The desiccated dust
Carrying mementoes of centuries of life
Lies lifeless
Till kicked angrily into flight
By the passing of a racing truck
Chasing, fruitlessly
For a damp place to regenerate

Yet within our walled secret garden
Life continues regardless
Verdant plants luxuriate
Bathing their feet twice weekly
In deep clear pools of cool water
And at the focal point of the dry patio
Sits our irrepressible bubbling fountain

Cascading drops
Shower without end
Their inexorable musical metallic plinking
Opening an aural window
Into a private place of inner calm
The smell of fresh dampness
Combining to create
An illusion of abundance
In a land of scarcity

For when we leave
With one swift flick of a switch
The magic stops
And the tenuousness of existence here
Become clearer
As the finite water

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Entropy Inaction

The same climate and proximity to the sea that we, as humans, love so much, is less than kind to inanimate objects. Entropy certainly rules in Todos Santos. Maintenance of buildings and paintwork is an on-going task, but one that can bring some satisfaction, if approached in the right frame of mind.

The Gate

It’s just a gate that I am painting
A utilitarian object
Not an impassioned expression
Of creative art

I’m irritated
By the sticky residue
On my hands and arms
Vivid testament
To the adhering qualities of premium paint
My arm, my shoulder, my legs ache

But, as I brush the paint
Over the stained, faded and pockmarked surface
As each crenellation is covered
With a coat of luscious liquid colour
A colour that pulls me into its warming cool depths
It is as if I were cancelling
The law of entropy
That dominates this town

Soon, far too soon
The magic will end
The law suspended, not repealed
Hardly waiting for paint to dry
Crystalline dust will add trademark highlights
Of Todos Santos Taupe
To the horizontal surfaces
Birds, whose company I so enjoy
Will rest a while before expressing themselves
On the pristine surface
And careless visitors
Will unknowingly scratch
The perfection
Because it is
Just a gate

But for now
I am content to gaze with wonder
On my pedestrian
Work of art.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Escape Artistry

Before I committed to living in Todos Santos, I used to enjoy looking through the website Squeezed between the many advertisements for real estate across the world, there would be some interesting information about the benefits (mostly) and disadvantages (generally minimized) of living an ex-pat life in far-away places. I didn’t give the site name any thought, until a recent conversation with a friend. I was bemoaning (again) the lack of deep connection that I was finding in Todos Santos. “But you must remember” , they said, “people are here to escape, not engage”.

When I thought about that, the deep truth within it blossomed. For I think that at heart, most people in Todos Santos are here as escape artists first, and other reasons second.

The escape may be as banal and obvious as getting away from bad weather. I am as guilty as anyone in this regard. Well, maybe I am a little more escapist than many in this regard, because cold weather for me invokes body memories of a very unpleasant time in my life when, coincidentally, it was a blizzard and -35C. After that event, I hated cold weather viscerally, and so escaping to a mock summer enabled me to hide from those very unpleasant memories and feelings.

Beyond getting away from cold, people here give a number of public reasons for coming, particularly if they live here full-time. “Couldn’t stand the dangerous traffic anymore”, “Too much stress in American life”, “It’s so commercialized there”, “The government is corrupt (or evil)”, or even, my favourite “There’s no sense of community”.

Look closely, and you will also see some more personal tragedies behind some people’s arrival, such as retreating from a bad or failed marriage, or the death of a spouse.

Finally, there are the secret reasons. People who need to get away from their countries because they are wanted for crimes, or are avoiding paying alimony or child support. Or even, maybe, terrorism. Todos Santos hit the press big time in 1995, when a Mr. Amer Haykel, who was hanging about at the volunteer fire station, was arrested on suspicion of being involved with 9/11.

So what’s wrong with trying to escape (leaving aside fleeing the law)? The first issue is the paradox that, if you keep your eyes open and get involved, you find you haven’t escaped anything after all.

The banal reason of escaping bad weather may get you back in odd ways. Instead of escaping, you may find that you simply readjust the bounds of acceptability. After the initial bliss of warmth on arrival, you may find yourself criticizing the few days where it is cloudy, and finding it difficult to brave the frigid temperatures of 10C at night.

As far as the litany of Northern problems from which people try to escape, there’re all still here, if you look closely. If you thought you were escaping dangerous traffic, you haven’t looked at the statistics for fatalities on roads here such as the 4 lane between Cabo and San Jose Del Cabo. When you consider the panicked rush to build and flip spec homes here over the last 2 years year (maybe 50 or so, where the average number of homes built a few years ago - for occupation - was closer to 5), and the ballooning numbers of real estate practitioners and developers here, it’s hard to call Todos Santos a Mecca for the antithesis of commercialization. You can leave behind the stress of high-pressure city life, but you may find, insidiously, there are also stresses, albeit different, that come from having to find ways to fill your time in a manner that adds meaning to your life. American government may well be less than perfect, but I am unsure you will find Mexican politics any more open and above criticism.

And don’t get me started again on the subject of community (if you’re interested, check my December 2007 entry on “A Sense of Community”).

Even escaping from personal tragedies may not really solve the problem. It perhaps may simply defer dealing with the issue, burying it under a blanket of socializing, to reappear later, perhaps at a more unexpected moment.

The second issue with trying to escape arises as a consequence of not wanting to recognize the truth of the first issue, namely that escaping is an illusion. The trick that many escape artists pull, therefore, is to invent their own, corrected reality. A good sign of this is when someone utters the magic phrase “It’s Paradise here!”. When I hear this (or some variant) I am seized with the urge to shake that person to wake them up (a reaction which I manage, for social reasons, to contain). As far as I am aware, humans were ejected from Paradise as soon as they ate from the tree of knowledge, and you can’t get back until you are dead, even if you close your eyes and wish you hadn’t eaten. And last time I checked, most people here are alive, at least in the physical sense.

The desire to see the choices they have made validated as perfect makes some people perhaps see only what they want to see. If they can’t always sustain that perspective in public, they may retreat inward, possibly aided in that quest by mind-altering substances. A congregation of such individuals, enjoying their bliss, may not, in my view, be the greatest foundation for a community.

So is Todos Santos a collection of spaced-out, blissful but delusional escape artists? Not everyone, of course, fits this description. There are those who recognize the irony of their actions. There are people for whom the pull attractant of Todos Santos is greater than the push repulsion from wherever they came. Some, for example, come here with the express intent of using the new culture and solitude to try to find their true selves. Fanatic surfers come here explicitly for uncrowded access to exceptional waves.

Perhaps the surfer dudes, for all their oddness to more conventional folk, are more happily in touch with reality than most of us? But then fanaticism has its own price, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

The Wind of Change

Recently, Todos Santos has been visited by a series of strange, cold winds. Heralded by wispy “Nike” shaped clouds that we used to call “Mare’s Tails” in the UK, they appear (and disappear) quickly, bring icy clarity, and change the bucolic nature of the seaside into something much more charged.

A Stranger Visits

Infused with the essence
Of dry snow-capped mountain peaks
In a far distant continent
The exotic wind swoops across the ocean
Slicing a razor cut horizon
To divide light from dark
Dusting the languid waves with white
In homage to its origin

Its arrival wakes nature from its torpor
Arousing into excited dance
Wavelets skitter across the lagoon
To the rhythm of sloppy breakers
Syncopated by slapping wing beats
Of a burly troupe of bathing pelicans
While graceful birds pirouette and glide
A silent accompaniment

Palms salute and wave at the visitor
In synchronous choreography
Fronds combing the air desperately
To savor the exotic flavor
Of unknown lands

But in town, the music dissipates
Locals go about their business
A swirl of dust
And jackets pulled tighter
The only signs of the strangeness
That just visited.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

The Art of Growing Houses in Todos Santos

Those of you who have not recently visited the previously wide open spaces of Las Tunas and beyond, will be certain to be surprised when next you come to Todos Santos. There has been a land rush over the past few years, and the landscape is now peppered with the results of this bonanza cash crop. Perhaps the traditional view of what agriculture and arts mean to Todos Santos needs to change to reflect these new realities?

Artistic Interpretations

Where cultivation was once deemed marginal
In sad abandoned chili fields
Or stony slopes of rocky desert
New owners mark their territory
And plant the seeds of their new crop

Drawing sustenance not from sweet water,
But from their owner’s dreams and aspirations,
Their germinating houses rend the ground noisily
Reaching from the earth
But blatantly not of the earth

Tended by the same workers
Who cared for the ghosts of chili plants long gone
The new crop climbs trellises of rebar
Sprouting walls, floors, roofs
And sometimes minarets and gargoyles
Orienting themselves, jostling possessively for position
Not to draw energy from the sun
But towards the new source of bounty
The Ocean View

And as they ripen individually
Colours reflecting their owner’s tastes
They make concrete
A cornucopia of interpretations
Of a Baja house by the sea

Here is Santa Fe living quietly with New York loft
Humble space for living
Beside ostentatious decadence
Storybook cottage or whimsical dream
Neighbored by stark modernity
All counterpointed by the sad utilitarian look
Of houses grown to harvest unknown buyers

And as I gaze on this eclectic new crop
Baking under the hot sun
I suddenly realize
How well it reflects the nature of community here
And how the tourist description
Of an agricultural town housing an artists colony
Is both right and misunderstood
The new crop itself
The new form of artistic expression
In Todos Santos.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Intimacy in Small Places

I've written before about the differences between the two towns in which I live in terms of making new relationships. What about the prospects for developing deeper, intimate relationships while living a bisected life?

First I probably need to clarify what I mean by “intimate relationships”. The term is loosely used to cover a wide variety of personal interactions. I don’t, in this context, mean sexual relationships, some of which can be anything but intimate. I am using the term here to cover relationships where there is a shared ability and desire to be honest about yourself and the other, where you can feel safe opening up, and where you will be heard. A tall order, perhaps, but for me, a requirement for a fulfilling and illuminated life.

It is perhaps paradoxical that, in some respects, it is far easier to have the trappings of such a relationship with someone who is almost a stranger. There is so little to lose, no expectation, and no catalogue of interpreted stories to mask what is said. As a result, it can be easier to open up, and to listen attentively. Transient relationships can be valuable and insightful. They lack, however, the substance of an on-going relationship where there is shared risk in revealing. Intimacy between strangers is perhaps like striking a match in the dark: easy to do, briefly illuminating, but incapable of sustaining warmth, unlike maintaining a crackling fire of true intimacy over time.

Were you to want to pursue the easy life of serial intimacy with strangers, small places are not the best place to live. The pickings are slim, no-one remains a stranger for long (unless they live a life as a recluse), and you are going to interact with these “strangers” on a regular basis, ruining the idea of “nothing to lose”.

So with the intent of pursuing long-term intimacy, how do the towns suit a bifurcated lifestyle?

Most residents of Comox live there fulltime, apart from vacations. We are in the unfaithful minority that chickens out and chose to live somewhere warmer and drier in the winter. During the summer when we are there, social life for others in Comox turns inward. It centers around long-term friends from previous lives visiting from off-island, family vacations, or grandkids who come to stay for the season, and leaves little room for the time-consuming effort of developing new deep relationships. Indeed, almost all social clubs cease operations in the summer, waiting for the return of the dark dampness of the Fall to force people to begin interacting again. Of course, by then, we’ve left for warmer parts. When we return, it’s as though we are really extended holidaymakers, who aren’t part of the scene. It’s hard to get close to anyone under these circumstances.

Todos Santos has a different profile. Most of the residents are native Mexicans and, at the risk of offending others, I would suggest that it is unlikely that most Canadians or Americans are going to establish intimate relationships with this segment of the population. The cultural differences run so much deeper than appears on the surface, and I think that some common foundational beliefs are probably a necessary condition for real intimacy.

The “Gringo” Todos Santos divides into two main camps based on residency, with different characteristics in respect of relationships. The minority that makes Todos Santos their home will, naturally, tend to form their primary relationships with others who are in the same space, literally and figuratively. They enjoy the arrival of the part-timers (at last, someone else to talk to and about after the drought of summer!), but you can hardly blame them should they not want to invest their energies into deep relationships with those who aren’t around much of the time.

The others, in the “Seasonal” camp, only spend a few weeks or months here each year. Most of them have their established lives elsewhere, in the true Gringolandia Up North. For many of them, Todos Santos is an escape (a subject to which I’ll return in a future posting), a vacation from their real lives. They are here to have fun, to warm themselves in the sun, to surf, or any one of the other diversions that Todos Santos can offer. For most of them, I suspect, working on new deep relationships while “on vacation” is the last thing on their minds. They want party friends, activity friends, relationships that are as easy-going and digestible as the Margaritas that slide down their throats.

Different needs, different places, the same result as far as general desire to achieve intimacy afresh. The real barrier to developing new intimate relationships is probably an attitude of sufficiency, of being satisfied with the relationships you’ve formed to date, maybe ossified somewhat by the inertia of aging (as few that can afford to move to either place are young).

I’ve been told that you shouldn’t expect to have more than 2 or 3 truly intimate relationships in your life (and no-one has disclosed whether this mystical number is supposed to include spouses!). But then, I’ve never been one to settle for mediocrity or artificial limits, nor to think we should stop growing as we age, so I rebel against the idea I have used up my quota.

It’s not easy being intimate, and especially so when transplanting yourself to new, small places. Not easy, but, fortunately, not everyone fits the expected formula, and so, not impossible. We are not alone!

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Tribal States

I’ve written before about what I perceive as worrying signs of balkanization in Todos Santos, where people are tending to stay and relate within their own insular district. Occasionally, driven perhaps by the distant strains of drums or music, they may emerge from their habitat and come to town, but they avoid interacting significantly with others outside their tribe – or, from what I observe, within it either. Unaccountably to me, they seem quite happy with their version of “Life Lite”. But then, who is more content, those living an apparently unexamined life, or those who over analyze?

Tribal Encounters

As the music begins
They enter confidently
Sniffing out familiar markings as they arrive
Ritually embracing
Without passion
Standardized smiles adorning their uniform

I sit watching them preen
Glowing in their tribe’s company
Listening to the flutter of cheerful conversation
Rise and fall with the music
Drifting from one banality
To the next inconsequential issue
Deftly waltzing past topics
That might disturb
Or reveal
What secrets lie beneath
Their polished armor

I want to shake them, shout
“Are you truly happy with this?
Is this all you need?
Or do you only commit acts of intimacy
In dark secret places?”

But I stay silently fuming
While the band plays on
Jealous and incredulous
Wondering what flaw it is in me
That needs connection
Without artifice
And why I seem to care
About tribes I do not care for.

Friday, 1 February 2008

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now…

The recent partly cloudy weather here in Todos Santos, and the return of the sun, made me reflect on one of the major differences between here and Comox: clouds, and their interaction with the land.

Although the Huerta heart of Todos Santos is green, due to the multiple springs that feed it, the town itself sits just about on the Tropic of Cancer. The town itself, and all around, for hundreds of miles, is owned by the desert. Other than a brief, unreliable rainy season in the summer, the land is parched.

In the “Season”, the westerly trade winds bring almost constant dry air over the town, and the sky is usually a spotless crystalline blue. When clouds do appear, they tend to stay aloof, sitting high up in the clear air, giving me vertigo when I look up at them so far above and yet so clearly detailed you feel you could touch them. They act as if repelled by the thirsty, demanding land beneath them, afraid to get too close in case they are dissolved, imagining being diminished by closeness, as indeed is the case. If the dry ground and its thirsty air don’t get them, the relentless sun usually does. When the vapours are stronger, you can sometimes see the cloud bubbling underneath, like watching a simmering pot of porridge upside down, as if it is thinking about breaking down and visiting the earth, but reconsidering.

Watching the spectacle, I think of clouds in Todos Santos as being a cautious lover, careful to keep its needy partner earth at a distance, for fear of being consumed by the union.

Comox, on the other hand, seems to sit right on the target path of the infamous “Pineapple Express” that brings a continuous stream of wet air north. The countryside is lush and green, dense woodlands interspersed with succulent pastures. Comox does have its periods of sun, but clouds are ever eager to return and reclaim their territory. When the clouds move in, they don’t stay aloof, but instead hug the contours of the land, sometimes making it difficult to tell whether the cloud has come down to kiss the earth, or is being born from that earth. They overwhelm, pressing their attentions and wetness on a land already saturated with moisture.

Comox clouds, to me, seem like suffocating suitors, increasing their efforts to woo even as the disinterested earth rejects their advances.

Two places, two dysfunctional relationships between the elements. I wonder where the sky and earth live together in a healthy way? But maybe that wouldn’t be so interesting …

Monday, 28 January 2008

Walking in the Sierra De La Lagunas

Todos Santos sits where the massive Sierra De La Laguna mountain range falls down to the sea. It provides a beautiful scenic backdrop, and collects rainfall that feed the springs which, in the past, and even now, provide the life blood for the town. Follow the dirt roads that lead you to the base of the mountains, and, even though you are still physically close to the familiar, you enter a different world, away from the hustle of the town itself, and entirely different in sound and nature from the relaxed, open environment of the beaches.

Silent Warfare

It’s silent here
No remnant sounds of trucks or construction
To drag us back
No wind rustling the bounty of dried seedpods
Decorating the trees
No melodic chatter of birds
So numbingly quiet
We feel a need to fill the awkward gap
Speak too much
The sounds of our brave voices
And our footsteps
Out of place
But swallowed as soon as created
Leaving nothing

But under the veneer of peaceful silence
In this natural cathedral
A battle rages
So slowly we hardly notice its progression
The roots of fig trees claw
At raw rock
Pierce through weaknesses
Perhaps for support
Or sustenance
Or simply to wring life from inanimate matter
Cactus, tree and vine entwine
In a fight to reach the sun first
And in the sandy echo of a river bed
Smooth granitic boulders
Wait patiently, silently for the summer’s rain
To continue their grinding
Path of destruction
To the sea.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Having a whale of a time in Todos Santos

One of the more magical elements of the “Pueblo Magico” of Todos Santos is the arrival of the grey whale migration, which usually peaks in early February, but started this season in mid November. I have to admit I am not entirely sure why the whales make it down this far, since the calving lagoons are quite a bit north of here (around Guerro Negro). Perhaps they too enjoy the warmth and the sunshine before heading back to the grayness and cold of the North?

Whales have an ability to draw loving attention from almost anyone who sees them. Just the sight of their vaporous spout, drifting backlit along the sea, is enough to make people drop what they are doing and look. When they decide to perform and leap continually out of the water, close to shore, there are usually shouts and sighs of “Ahh!” across the beach.

Realtors are very aware of the universal, mystical appeal of the whales. They have a saying “See a whale, make a sale”, and it is not all in jest.

Quite why these lumbering creatures illicit such a reaction, I do not know. Part of it is indeed their size, which seems so out of the ordinary that we are entranced. But then we don’t celebrate such largeness in all things. The term “beached whale” when applied to a large person sunbathing on a beach is not usually a term of endearment. The fairy dust appeal of the spouts loses something when you get close enough to smell its odour of rotting fish, and up close, the smooth sides of the whales are pocked with barnacles and other debris.

I suspect that the appeal has something to do with their gentleness (for all their size, they don’t attack other fish for their food, and content themselves with tiny amphipods that no-one really cares about), their apparent embodiment of family values as they swim lazily along in pods, and their seeming indifference to all the strife around us. Whales are, well, just serene, and maybe we wish that we could be too.

Of course, being humans and anything but serene, our attempts at connection and hence maybe sharing some of that elixir are intrusive. There are many whale watching trips offered and, driven by the insatiable demands of the public, and despite regulations that prohibit it, these boats approach far too close and finally disturb the whales. The latest abominations are powerful jet skis that time-starved tourists can use to go bother them directly and quickly with maximum noise. Being whales, though, they very rarely take revenge.

There can, however, be real danger in watching these creatures. The photo at the head of this posting was taken last year from one of the prime whale watching spots on the beach here, by La Poza Lagoon. The whales come within 50 feet of the shore, probably attracted by the fresh water seeping through the sand and the creatures that thrive in this brackish environment. One day after I took this photo, the place I was standing was swept away as the lagoon breached, and one person drowned.