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 …