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.