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?

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