Monday, 21 December 2009

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more


My blog has been “resting”; lying there discarded as a journal of past experiences in Baja. But I have not stopped writing. Instead, I have set myself a more ambitious target. Eschewing the easy route of short, random observations, I decided to write a book, with all its demands of structure, flow and, frankly, commitment of time. The working title is “Living La Vida Loca: When the Dream of Life in Mexico becomes Reality”. What’s it about? Here’s an extract from the introduction:

“When I tell people in the North that I spend winters in Baja, they are, perhaps, a little shocked at first, usually envious, and often curious as to what the life is like. Most have a preconception that life in Baja is just one uninterrupted vacation. They usually ask “So what do you find to do all day, for that length of time?” - a question to which it is hard to give a quick response that reflects the experience of being there. Analytical folk may ask questions about health care, shopping and the mechanics of day-to-day life. But just about everyone lacks the broad context of experience for probing what it is really like living in the Mexican culture in a place that can physically resemble paradise.

This book is for anyone who has ever thought, even fleetingly, of making a life as a “snowbird”, or even as a full-time resident, in the warm climes of Mexico. Just what is it like to make that dramatic step? What is the reality of the dream? What should I know before I take steps to make it real, or decide it’s just not for me?

There are several books around that cover the physical mechanics and issues of living in Mexico in general, and Baja in particular. While this information is useful for anyone who plans to move there, logistics in Mexico, while they may frustrate you, won’t ultimately mean the difference between experiencing life as an exciting adventure or a nightmare. The more interesting and critical issues are those of being able to align yourself psychologically with the demands and opportunities of life in Mexico. So this book is about the internal experience of life as a foreign resident in Mexico. It looks at what drives people to come here, what surprises they found, how they cope with and grow from the experience, how reality compares to their expectations, and what they would do differently knowing what they do now.”

I now have completed a second draft of the book, and am now learning the intricacies (and restrictions) of formatting for distribution as an ebook (the vagaries of differing and competing formats for ebooks is a clear indication that this is an evolving technology!). I will probably publish as a downloadable PDF ebook on Lulu.com in early January, and then perhaps move to other ebook formats and a “published on demand” version later in the year. As soon as it is available for sale, I will publish a link to the order page on this blog.

Friday, 6 March 2009

W(h)ither the blog?


Perhaps it’s the New Year, causing me to reflect (even more than usual!) on my life. Perhaps it is because of friends’ comments, both considered and sloughed off incidentally in passing. Perhaps it is just the unrelenting heat here in Todos Santos that has addled my brain. Whatever the underlying reason, I have been struggling with understanding why I maintain this blog, and whether or not its value justifies continuing.

I first experimented with blogging when I was at the height of my professional business career, and at the forefront of using technology to leverage the work of teams. At that time, creating a blog, and even modifying the look and feel of the blog, required considerable work and arcane technical knowledge. Having mastered the complexities, and finding insufficient of net value to add to the toolkit, I moved on. I came back to try blogging again in late 2007, primarily because, like Everest, “it was there”. Technology had advanced to a point where it was easy to play with a blog, and I wanted to play.

I became mesmerised at first sight. I saw a beauty in the way the layout, attractive typeface and inclusion of pictures could transform even the most banal of content into something pleasing to the eye. And then the question came – ‘What could you use this for?” – rather than the content emerging first and then demanding an outlet.

Whenever a vacuum is created, something moves to fill it. I became interested in seeing whether I had the capacity to write beyond straightjacketed business prose and anguished poetic lamentations (the latter seeming now, to my mind, somewhat akin to Vogon poetry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vogon ) - infinitely cathartic, but strictly for internal consumption due to its devastating effect on the listener). And I discovered that I had a pent-up reservoir of thoughts on the evolution of my life, and about the places in which I lived, that I needed to dissect and exorcise. Building on these two drivers, the blog took on a life of its own. It demanded life from me. If I did not create an entry for a while, I would feel the pressure building within me that could only be relieved, temporarily, by another post.

Working through issues and practising craft are valuable pursuits. Most blogs, though, including this one, are public. Just why did I feel the need to make my efforts public? I could posture (and I have, at some level in my mind, held this view) that it provides a vehicle for gathering comments; provoking debate. If you look at the blog, however, you will see that there are few comments. There is little real debate or useful critique. I get most of my comments via private e-mail, but many are words of encouragement, rather than building on what I have written. I am not alone in this. If you look at most popular blogs, the comments are usually but a watered down froth to complement and compliment the author’s work. The “blogsphere” acts more like a support group for its inhabitants. I liken it somewhat to the Open Readings in Todos Santos. At each reading (a.k.a. group therapy session), every performance, from the sublime to the senile-adolescent, is applauded, and no meaningful critique is offered. I have often mused indeed as to whether the intensity of the applause reflects the value of the piece, or perhaps relief or sympathy proportional to the extent to which the reader has overrun his or her allotted 5 minutes.

So the ostensible value in publication does not stand up to critical review. What really lies behind my choosing to publish the blog? I think, at heart, it is a desire to address two conflicting needs, drawing from insecurity. To make me stand out from others, and to connect with others. I have used the blog as a form of extended business card; to shout “There’s much more to me than the business consultant that you think you know!” And there is a longing to connect with others, especially as I transition from a work-based life to something else, and live in two new, very strange and warmly isolating communities.

I have been fortunate to have connected, virtually or in person, with a few very interesting people through blogging. It is, however, a very random way to connect, akin to clicking the “next blog” at the top of the page. In addition, while it is true that you can often infer a lot about a person from reading their blog, it is also the case that the content of a blog represents a filtered view of their life, thoughts and feelings. True “connection” involves more than interchange of carefully manicured narrative.

As for promoting “The Real Vic”, as with everything, once strong daylight is shed upon a subject, it loses its potency. The thought now of thrusting this perception upon unsuspecting people seems mildly amusing and ineffectual.

I do have more to say, to explore, to picture. But I doubt that this blog is the appropriate mechanism. Blogs can have value; for example to keep an artist’s followers in touch with new work, or to keep friends aware of a travel adventure. This particular vehicle of mine, however, after 74 postings, has probably run its course.

I thank those who have enjoyed my postings, and especially those who have taken the time to tell me so. The reinforcement kept me going where lethargy would have brought this venture to an untimely end.

The photo I have chosen to accompany this final posting is again of bougainvilleas, a fitting symmetry to my first image on this blog. In some ways I think the omnipresent bougainvillea reflects truths about us and our lives. Continual outbreaks of flowers that are breathtakingly gorgeous and delicate present a longed for illusion of permanent beauty, while the detritus of withered dead flowers under the bush reminds me of the reality of the temporary nature of all things. Hidden behind the showy but ephemeral beauty of the flowers, are superficially uninteresting branches that are, in reality, the true strong core of the plant. Over time, this framework for the plant evolves from innocent sinewy shoots that twist as needed, to become strong, accreted with character, but unexpectedly encrusted with wicked thorns, ready to rend the unsuspecting or unprepared that dares probe beneath the surface illusion.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Virtual Paradise


One jarring paradox about living in Todos Santos lies is the difference between basic and electronic utilities. While indisputably necessary potable water service is unreliable, even in town, and sometimes unavailable in other, more gringo-desired areas, electronic services are pervasive and predictable. Ingenuity, coupled with creative monopoly-driven pricing approaches, has made it possible to stay connected, virtually, everywhere you go, using technology that is probably more advanced than typically used in the Northern, supposedly more evolved world.

Even where water pipes dare not go, entrepreneurs have created long-distance wireless networks to share landline high speed internet service. Just about everyone it seems (except us), local or ex-pat, has a cell phone, the explosive growth of which is aided by low prices fostered by the unique approach of “Quien llama, paga” – he who calls, pays. Our landline bill for calling cellphones is, for example, greater than our line cost! And now, high-speed internet service is available just about everywhere using a cheap cellphone modem service.

It is interesting to recall that, maybe 10 or so years ago, there was no internet service available, and phones were a rarity, with people having to line up at the message centre in town to gain access to a booth to make or receive calls. Thoughts of being disconnected in that way send shivers through my body, for I, like many others, have become essentially addicted to connectivity.

But is this connected paradise a positive thing? True, it enables me to keep in touch with friends, family and colleagues across the world through video calls. But it also means that you never detach from the manic word of “news” where there is a constant cacophony of misery and prognostications of doom, each reporter seeming to want to outdo the others in their depiction of the end of civilization as we know it. Like drivers craning their neck for a look at a car wreck, it’s very hard not to delve into all this gloom.

When I go for a stroll after taking my dose of “reality”, I am shocked by the dissonance of the hopelessness revolving in my head, and the world that my senses encounter. The sun is still shining, indeed lulling its subjects into lassitude in this unseasonably warm season. Fresh colour floods the plants in our garden. A menagerie of birds, from rampant and irrepresible Roosters through caustic Cactus Wrens and percussionist Flickers (who have an unnatural love of my metal chimney) to invisible yet mellifluent Warblers, still roam our yard. Raucous revellers from last night’s party (for Mexicans do indeed know how to party!) stagger along our dusty roads, holding onto each other for support. And so life still continues, much as before, in this sleepy little town.

I have noticed a trend amongst some fellow internet trollers to divest themselves of the habit of reading about the misery, and to surround themselves with more positive experiences. Part of me sees this as ostrich-like behaviour; ignoring tsunami warnings in the hope that it will turn out to be a mirage. But another part of me, the part that listens to the birds and the happily inebriated locals, sees the truth in this approach. The world will continue, no matter what stupidities humans inflict. And, while some will see it as ignoring what we cannot change, I suspect that, actually, the tide of negativity is self-realizing and so by thinking differently, perhaps we can change some small part of our world for the better.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Familiar numbness


The key reason why we come to the Baja in the winter, as for many people, is the combination of exceptional weather and bounteous seaside. Yes, there are other elements of life in Baja, and Todos Santos in particular, that add flavour to the mix, but it is the idyllic climate and location first and foremost. It is what many people describe as “paradise”.

I almost feel traitorous, therefore, when, about this time in the season, I explain to people back in the land of ice and snow that it is all becoming a bit “blah”. Yes, it is sunny – again. And I can wear shorts all day, without fear of losing appendages. And the garden is bursting with a cacophony of colour. And the whales are cruising around near shore and waving their flukes – as usual. Yawn!

Maybe I have the affliction more than most, but repeated exposure to any experience, no matter how wonderful, breeds a blinding familiarity. It is only when it is a jolt from normal life, or afterwards, when it is gone, that perhaps we truly appreciate what we experience. There are flashes or even longer stretches where the numbing veil is lifted, and I see what is before my eyes without a filter. But before long, the familiar images lull me back to sleep. The magical golden elements, in reverse alchemy, become the new leaden norm.

It is not Baja that causes such reactions. Back in Comox, we have a breathtaking and “in your face” view across the full spectrum blue Georgia Straights to the snow-capped green coastal mountains of BC. When we first arrived, we spent hours just sitting in the living room and watching with amazement. We committed to each other that we should never take this view for granted. And yet, just a few months later, we would catch ourselves carrying on our lives and almost forgetting about what was right in front of our eyes.

Is familiarity-bred numbness inevitable and irreversible? Some have suggested to me that it is our predestined fate but, by understanding this and keeping expectations low, life still remains enjoyable. Others would suggest that the blindness can be overcome. One school proposes living in the moment to connect us to what is really happening, and thus strip the familiarity fog from our eyes and other senses. But few (myself included) can do that for more than short periods of time before falling back into “normal” existence. Living a comparative life, an approach taken by some, where one is thankful for what we have because it is so much better than what others appear to endure, seems to me to be an artifice of rationalisation.

For now, I will just be thankful for those brief periods where the magic takes hold, and, however transiently, lets me experience life clearly.

Friday, 13 February 2009

There's a new wind in town

For the past few days, a new wind has swept through the town. Literally, that is, for I have not noticed any Barack-like cultural shift in this cocooned town. This is a physical wind that has come to visit, unusually, from the north, devouring the latent heat in this sunbaked town.

The wind changes the energy in the town. Gone is the comfortable feeling of indolence and pastoral passivity. In its place is a tremulous strength that shakes the fronds of the palm trees as if they were cheerleaders’ pompoms, scoops up handfuls of dust to cavort with in a frenzied dance, and drills the fluttering prayer flags to full attention.

I feel more in touch, more connected to the world when such a wind arrives. The soundscape changes, like ripping open the constrained tent of day-to-day noises to reveal an open universe that existed before, but was hidden from view. Restrained bass rumblings improvise with treble rustling of leaves, counterpointed by the random windchime song of a lonely bird perched firmly on the moving branches, feathers ruffling as it is stroked by this visitor. It is the sound of raw nature, uncorrupted by human contact.

And perhaps the reason that it calls to me so much is that it resonates with the sounds within me; the sounds that you can hear inside if you are quiet and listen very carefully. The sound, perhaps, of life itself, and the energy within and around us.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

The Good Ship “Todos Santos”


Todos Santos is a very small town. Maybe not as small as the cruise ship passengers think, after being disgorged from their sleek buses at the Hotel California for the allowed 2 hours for lunch and a stroll of the settlement, but still a small town in every aspect.

We have a mere handful or so of dine-out restaurants (even less if you have not qualified for a TARP bailout package), 2 coffee shops, 1 bookstore, 1 theatre (usually closed except for specially authorized “Mexican” productions), no cinema, no nightclub, no department stores, no malls (unless you are desperately seeking trinkets), a couple of yoga classes and 1 spiritual teacher. While, in season, there is a constant trickle of entertainment, the calendar is thin enough that the events don’t overlap. In fact, you can perhaps liken Todos Santos to a stationary cruise ship, parked in the constant sunshine for the winter cruise, taking on passengers for short or long stays, and then operated by a skeleton crew in the tiresome summer.

So what does this mean for life on The Good Ship “Todos Santos”? As for cruises in general, some people can’t stand the thought of the boredom implicit in the finite universe of a ship, and wouldn’t go near the place. The 2 hour tour is more than enough for them. For those that do stay, the bounded nature of the town has a subtle but pervasive impact on life, which was brought home to me by two passengers who disembarked last year and noticed the dislocating change of infinite choices when living in their version of “the real world”. A paucity of choices – often being reduced to the binary “do I go or not?” –provides an artificial cocoon of safety and predictability to counter the noisy babble of debate and decisions needed in the real world. A cocoon that is even more sought after by many in this time of general economic hardship.

Days become clearly labelled with the “events of the day” – Sunday Dharma , Monday Yoga , Tuesday Zumba and Ecocafe, etc. Dining out choices (if you, as some do, eat out most days) may be refined to the simplicity of “not where we ate last night” or even “not what I ate last night”. Or you may just decide to cement the safety bubble by becoming a virtual hermit, selecting “none of the above”.

On reflection, maybe a less kind metaphor for Todos Santos then is that of a well-meaning institution, where the inmates are kept from harm by a strict and prescribed regimen of routine and managed choices. An institution, of course, managed by the inmates who have committed themselves to this place.

Taking away the froth of decision making in normal life should free up time and energy for introspection, to delve inside, to better ground yourself in the world. Or at least that is what I would expect. Does it happen? You probably wouldn’t be reading this if there weren’t some small windows opened up by the constrictions of Todos Santos. What I find most surprising, though, is the ingenuity of we inmates / cruisers to re-engineer our lives to restore us to insanity.

For every moment spent in quiet reflection, there is gossip (or to be culturally sensitive, “chisme”) to be devoured, fertilized and sent on its way, house projects to be obsessed over, good works to benefit furry animals to be planned, games to be played. Even blogs to be written, for those technically inclined. Anything, in fact, to fill the time, to make us busy and avoid the simplicity that, at least partly, drove us here.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Storms in a teacup, and birds of a feather flocking together



Several years ago, when I was dreaming wistfully of relocating from Calgary to someplace quieter, I came across a treatise on the impact of settlement size on social interactions outside the family. At one end of the scale, it pointed out that life in a populous city can, paradoxically, be very isolating, enabling a person to live their lives anonymously without much interaction at all. At the opposite end, living in spatial isolation in “the outback” also, naturally, involves little interaction. In between, as the size of the settlement shrinks, the degree of necessary interaction increases until, at some level, the community size reaches a tipping point and interaction quickly drops – perhaps for self-preservation, to avoid individual absorption into “the collective”.

I suspect that the core Gringo settlement of Todos Santos is around the critical size where the degree of expected social interaction is maximized. Add to this potent stew of interactions a paucity of tasks to occupy the mind, tropical heat, and a collection of alpha personalities not seen in many places, and it becomes easy to see why social anthropologists could have a field day here.

One observable effect of this bubble community is how minute perturbations in the smooth flow of social interactions – mere trifles measured on any rational scale – become magnified. Slights to individuals ricochet off the hard surfaces of our gringo enclosure, germinate in the tropical heat, take root and, nourished by gossip successively enhanced in each telling, grow into full seven course gourmet dinners featuring spleen sautéed in bile. Parties become polarized into polar opposites, flashing sparks at each other when they meet (as inevitably happens frequently), all the while attempting to conceal the generated bad energy under a translucent mantle of projected good humour and politeness.

Of course, rationally, this is all pretty silly. While I am here, though, I find myself being sucked into the vortex, spinning storms in a teacup and playing the game while at the same time laughing at my stupidity and gullibility. The observer effect visible in real life; the observer is impacted by, and influences the very phenomenon he is trying to observe. Once removed from this location on the Tropic of Cancer – how appropriate in this emotional sense – the fog of silliness lifts, and I wonder just how I could get so caught up in the process. But for those who remain in Todos Santos fulltime, there is no escape from the laboratory. Grudges, generated by emotional storms, can become ossified, becoming, for them, reality; an armour that is put on by rote each day.

Effects are observable at the other end of the emotional spectrum. Magnetised, perhaps, by the electricity flowing in the emotionally charged atmosphere, some people gravitate into happy “flocks” of like-minded souls.

You can observe these flocks moving through life in Todos Santos and the surrounds as a moving cloud of people, sometimes with a clear leader attended by acolytes, sometimes just as an amorphous mass, always together. Such groups act as a mini universe for the inhabitants, self-sufficient and self-sustaining. Within the group, all is peace and light, a place of haven. Outside the group, people either don’t exist or are seen as diminished, less worthy beings.

The closest parallel I can think of for these Todos Santos flocks is perhaps cliques at high school – or teenage “gangs”. In fact, both examples of behaviour I have described are more often associated with hormonally-induced teenage angst, and associated lack of self confidence, than one might expect here given the “mature” adulthood of those people populating this town. Maybe it is that the hormonal imbalances of menopause and andropause that most of us suffer from evoke a reflection of our earlier lives, and cause us to act like “middle-aged teenagers” as a friend expressed (albeit in a different context!)?

Saturday, 24 January 2009

A panoply of friends?


Despite the general richness of the English language, there seems to be a paucity of terms to cover the enormous field of relationships that we simply call “friends”. At a minimal end of the spectrum, we have the term “acquaintance”. More often than not, we just categorise “friends” with adjectives to indicate the degree of closeness – “good friend”, “close friend”, “BFF” (for those instant messaging-challenged readers, “best friend forever”). Beyond “friend”, the different words that are available are often tinged with sexual overtones - for example “mate, “companion”.

Perhaps this limited vocabulary, and the lack of precision with which it is used, hinders us in understanding what, if I may put it in crass business terms, the rights and obligations are of the parties engaged in the friendship should be and even what “cloud of friends” (just what is the collective noun for the varied set of relationships we call friends?) you have or need in your life.

I’ve been led to think about what friendship means through a hectic period of socialising at many levels of intensity in Todos Santos, and by a passing comment from someone that the nature of their friendships seemed different here to those in their home town. She remarked that many of her friendships in Todos Santos were superficially close, involving much discourse and hugging, but that the true lives and makeup of these people were, in fact, unknown to her.

In Todos Santos, the most frequently encountered “friend” (Amicus Familiaris Todos Santos) is indeed akin to that encountered in a work environment or, more precisely, a project colleague. You are both here for a limited duration, brought together for disparate reasons and having little in common other than this co-location, and you spend a lot of waking time together. Your joint project is … the TS season, which you work on together tirelessly. What drives you internally is not for discussion; it’s protocol that you show only one facet of yourself to others. And the pressure of the project causes a temporary sense of intimacy and bonding.

Back in Comox, we are the exceptions in being seasonal, rather than full-time residents, and so the fauna of friends is different. The friend species that we encounter most is the newly arrived retiree (Amicus Familiaris NovoComox), who bears a close similarity to a type encountered in childhood – the “playdate”. Coming together for the purpose solely of enjoying group play activities (biking, hiking, kayaking, …), little is shared beyond this bubble.

Though I may be poking fun at these strange interactions that get labelled “friendship”, such relationships do play a vital part in participating in life in the different communities. But, just as a life eating only chocolate may appear delicious at first, yet is hardly a recipe for healthy longevity, so do we all need a varied cloud of relationships to protect us and allow us to function and flourish – in my terms, perhaps, a “panoply” of friends.

As I have tried to understand what I want and need, and the reasons for subtle dissatisfaction, it has occurred to me that the field of relationships that one might call “friendship” has many independent dimensions. While the nature of the relationship will be wildly different along each dimension, it is not true that there is a “correct” point on the scale. Each may play a valuable role in your life – if you understand what you have, and don’t expect it to meet a different need. Consider, perhaps, as a starting point, the following sample of possible orthogonal dimensions of (asexual) friendship:

1. Intimacy (in the sense of the extent to which secret and difficult parts of your life are shared): it’s a vital relief valve; a means of checking your own perceptions. But I tire even at the thought of maintaining many such intense relationships. Sometimes life should just be FUN!

2. Reciprocity: strange though it perhaps seems at first, there is not always a need for complete reciprocity in actions and intents between the parties in a successful relationship. Our needs may be quite different, yet be satisfied by the prescribed dimensions of the relationship.

3. History: long lasting friendships provide glue, a rooting of your life. Losing contact as we moved from Calgary to Comox and began our peripatetic lives has been traumatic. But people change over time and some needs become no longer relevant. And there is wonder and value in the injection of new people into our consciousness.

4. Commonality:
living a life bereft of anything in common with the people with whom we interact would be very dislocating. Commonality allows a sense of safety; a forum to share views and work collaboratively. But living in a Stepford Wives commune would be stultifying. We all need to be reminded of different perspectives; to have a kick on the side of the head to make us grow.

Considering my cloud of relationships within such a framework has given me some matter to chew upon. But, least you be tempted to imagine that I have become, of all things, deeply analytical in my dotage, I have to admit that I am often most fascinated by the ambiguity that exists in relationships. The shifting inconsistencies and unknowns that define us as humans are often the magic that draws and intrigues me.

Monday, 19 January 2009

It's a grey day


One of the reasons I, and many others, spend their winters in the Baja is the seeming impossibility of endless days of naked sun pouring down from transparent skies. In my particular case I have found that I am extraordinarily susceptible to the influence of the weather and so desperately crave this winter dream. As the sky clears, so, generally, do my spirits. When, as is inevitable, the blue perfection of Baja skies are marred by the intrusion of clouds trumpeting the passing of a winter “Pineapple Express”, the closing of the heavens reflects my darker thoughts.


The closing of the heavens

On this incongruously named Sunday
A heaviness of grey permeates the town
Sucks familiar colour from the world

This is not the coquettish grey of springtime mist
Heat buried in refreshing damp coolness
Ready to reveal all when shamelessly seduced by the sun

No, this is the winter grey of ennui
Begat from surfeits of necessary losses
From watching the watcher in the mirror grow older
In a shrinking universe of possibilities

A grey that washes away the glittery brilliance
That often blinds our senses
To reveal the wounded flaws in all the structures of our life
The cracks in our buildings, untended relationships

The grey we try to push away
To revel in the affirmation of sunshine
Only for it to return, fortified

The wise grey bird sits patiently
Silhouetted against the grey sky
On the stilled dead branches of the grey tree
As it has always done
Graciously immune to vagaries of the weather.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Full Moon Drumming


We could see that we were uncharacteristically late as we joggled slowly in our car along the Otro Lado dirt road. The sun was saying its last goodbyes as it prepared to drown in the sea. A vivid glow from wounded clouds that had sprung up in the late afternoon now ebbed toward shades of cooling blood. As we dropped off the spine of the ridge, we saw and heard our destination: a circle of people gathered around a flickering bonfire on the beach, and the attenuated bass notes of drumming.

Full Moon drumming is a secret Todos Santos tradition. It’s not that it is deliberately kept secret. Indeed it has now reached the elevated state of being noted in the Baja Western Onion, the biweekly newsletter that Todos Santaneans regard as the Oracle for all that’s happening in the area. No, it’s that, even in this liberated town, drumming is looked upon by some as akin to a demonic act, probably performed by wart-encrusted spinsters and fallen monks dressed in black, and possibly involving the sacrifice of small furry animals. Mention that you participate in Full Moon Drumming circles in other places in Southern Baja and you are even less likely to be taken seriously. “You do what?!” followed by guffaws of laughter, and a quick change of subject. Occasionally, you will get the wistful apology “I wish I could do that”, as if it were some deliciously dirty sin that they cannot participate in through a lack of bravery or strict moral or civil laws.

Despite these reactions, every full moon, a fluid group that ranges in size from a dozen to maybe 30 or so gathers at sunset on the beach at the bocana to drum in the full moon around a bonfire. There are a variety of drums; mostly African djembes, but also conga and even steel drums, accompanied by an eclectic set of other percussion instruments such as shakers, tambourines and even water garafons. Few are expert drummers; some just come to hear and maybe keep a beat when the mood strikes. And there is no leader. The rythyms start spontaneously and evolve, ending when the group senses it has lived its life. It may be a secret tradition, but it is one of the most magical ones in our little “Pueblo Magico”.

We unpack the car in the deepening gloom, and walk across the sand to the group, the sounds growing and becoming more distinct with each step. As we take our seats in the circle, the clouds thin, and the moon emerges. We take in the dull afterglow of the sun’s demise persisting over the water, the full moon now resplendent over the Sierra Lagunas, and the heat of the fire replacing the searing of the day. The threatened strong winds hold in abeyance at the sun’s funeral, and the world seems at peace.

As the moon burns away the final wisps of shrouding cloud, it is as if the landscape is illuminated by a faint, chromatically challenged street light. All is visible dully, painted in shades of grey; the world of colour contracted to a small sphere around the alternate sun of ravenous fire.

A rhythm starts and, at first, I panic, unable to recall how to drum, how to make my tuneless hands and fingers coax patterns from the inert goatskin. And then I relax out of my critical mind into awareness of the other drums, and I am in the groove, laying a base line and then soaring in ad hoc syncopated beats before I subside back to the core. Playing, and hearing something greater than the sum of the individual drum patterns.

Ghosts slide along the shoreline, then break into a march to the beat of our drums. Drawn by the hypnotic beat and the warmth of the fire, the ghosts draw closer, evolve into women and girls, and start to dance spontaneously to our sound. Exhausted and giggling, they draw back into the greyness and disappear into the distance.

As the improvisation dies, friends chatter amongst themselves. An ember is pulled from the fire, drawing laser red lines in the air, followed by the familiar sweet aroma drifting across the group.

Later, the wind appears, rolling off the land toward the sea. The group disperses, little by little, in the wind, leaving nothing but ashes that the tide will erase, and memories of magic that will last for ever.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Busy doing nothing?


Recently, I asked a fulltime resident how they managed to fill their days, especially in the off-season, when the town empties substantially. Her reply was that she had had to cut back on participating in things as she felt she didn’t have enough time. My initial reaction of incredulity evaporated as I recalled my own experiences.


I have found that there are several successive and distinct stages in the perception of time as you progress through a “season” in Todos Santos. Initially, time feels like a master against whom you fight, trying to cram all the myriad of activities necessary to breathe life back into the house and re-establish relationships that have been suspended over the summer. Life is a rush, a bustle of appointments jostling for space. It’s really an extension of normal life back in the North, or at least normal life for those who have careers to build or families to raise.


Usually, this phase ends in a few weeks, and I progress into the boredom stage – “so what do I do now?” There are no emergencies to address, no burning material needs to be met, and no links to be re-ignited. In fact, nothing that demands attention from the “doing” part of a person. This is the most difficult time for me; the time when I challenge why I come here repeatedly, try to think of projects (and then discard them as not being worthwhile), and generally drive Diane crazy. This year, the transition to this private wasteland took longer, probably because our arrival was punctuated with family emergencies and a trip to Guatemala. But I have been firmly entrenched in the treacly perception of time for a while now.


Eventually (and, unfortunately, even knowing that this will happen does not seem to belay the need to pass through the steps and worry at each that, this time, it won’t pass), the barren wasteland opens up, imperceptibly, to a state where time again becomes fluid. In this stage, though, time is not the master, but rather is somewhat incidental. I relax into the sustained pace of life in Todos Santos; find that the time passes almost imperceptibly and yet that isn’t a problem. And it is true that, after a while, it does appear that you need to cut back on outside activities because “there isn’t enough time”.


Since I am a transient resident, I never get beyond this stage. Before its time (or so it seems) the tyranny of the calendar intrudes and we must return North. The jolt of realization pulls me out of this dream state and back into a precursor of the frantic initial perception of time. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to remain in the protective bubble of Todos Santos. Whether there are states beyond that of doing little for a while, but having time independently running at fast forward speed?


The transitioning does give me the opportunity, and cause, to reflect on the appropriateness of my perceptions of time and the ways I spend my life. From the smug stance of the comfortably indolent stage, it is easy to see the insanity in the time-starved way we typically spend our days in North America. A life of constant activity, without time for reflection or steeped contact with friends. But equally, it is an experience of time that leads to achievements, to pushing oneself beyond levels of comfort. The quiet life of contemplation reveals a hidden side of yourself and others. But there is a fine line between contemplation leavened with gentle activity and sliding into facile laziness and rusting. Perhaps the transitioning I go through is, in fact, an ideal fertile environment?

Saturday, 3 January 2009

The party’s over


As the beginning of the New Year staggers to an end, so does the Great Party Season in Todos Santos. The time when we all put on our sparkly dresses (in my case, metaphorically) and head out to cavort with permutations of the same flock of people, who share being in the same place at the same time, but often little else.

I’m sure other places have a party season, but Gringolandia in Todos Santos must be able to claim the dubious honour of the crown; the latent intensity of such a bunch of off-centre people as are found in Todos Santos fertilized by the absence of a family environment for many residents, and, for others, by the influx of friends, relatives and hangers-on who, for some strange reason, consider that a party season in sunny warm climes beats suffering through another cold, dark, ice-encrusted family event up North.

When, partway through this Olympic season, I explained to a friend that I used to be a wallflower at parties, he looked at me in disbelief. Apparently, I have developed a reputation as becoming livelier when surrounded by people at a party. I had to explain that, lacking the essential training in party etiquette that we should all receive as part of growing up, my party skills are a learned behaviour, determined heuristically later in my adult life.

Parents are supposed to provide the first lessons in party behaviour. Mine were very self-contained, and socialising, let alone partying, was kept to a minimum. One Christmas, my parents, uncharacteristically, went to socialise with the neighbours in our duplex (whom I never met in the 12 years we lived side-by-side), leaving us children to fend for ourselves. No more than 30 minutes into their experiment, I tried an experiment of my own, consuming large quantities of peanuts and imbibing several glasses of Coca Cola. I can report that the results of my experiment were that I explosively decanted the mixture through my nose, causing my brother to have to run next door and retrieve my Parents , screaming “Vic’s being sick through his nose!” And so ended the socialising experiment, never to be repeated. For the sake of squeamish readers who may now think twice about inviting me into their homes, I can honestly say that I also have never repeated my experiment. Half-chewed peanuts and acidic Coca Cola are not meant to be expelled through delicate nasal passages.

University is where most people develop their graduate party skills. Regrettably, for me, University was socially more traumatising than educational. I had come from a working class background, only one step removed from “Downstairs” in the caste system of England. Indeed one grandmother had spent her life working as a cook “Downstairs” in the Country Houses of a succession of English Lords. I won a scholarship to Oxford, and suddenly found myself alone in a credible facsimile of “Brideshead Revisited”, populated by the “Upstairs” graduates of Eton, Charterhouse and other bastions of the English Public School system. For those unfamiliar with the term, English Public Schools are only public in the sense that entry is bought, though often also requiring the facilitative salve of being a scion of generations of alumni. Not surprisingly, my social encounters at Oxford were limited, never enjoying, for example, the experience of escorting debutantes to May Balls, nor attending grouse shooting events.

Highly educated, but totally naïve in the skills of partying, I entered adulthood and have had to divine the rules through empirical research. The recent season has highlighted a few of them:

1.You must be able to simultaneously balance and use a plate, a wine glass and a fork, and still be able to converse in a manner that appears, through an alcoholic haze, to be sentient. I have often thought that, if God had wanted us to be party animals, he would have left us with prehensile tails.

2. Interactions with any one person must be limited to no more than 10 minutes. Transgressions of this rule can lead to fertile and inventive rumours of the intent of the interaction, and social ostracism. Adherence to this rule is aided by two points
a. You are going to meet mostly the same people at every event over a short period of time, so you will eventually run out of things to discuss
b. Rule 3 below

3. You must, at all costs, keep conversations at an appropriately frothy “party” level. Topics of substance, or likely to require the other party to think or feel, are to be avoided. And similarly, all responses must also be packaged for party consumption: “party answers” as a friend put it. Responses sufficiently tasteful, simple and glittery to satisfy the equally polite enquirer, but revealing little beneath the shiny exterior.

You could be forgiven for thinking that I am a party pooper. That, having come to them only as an adult, I hate parties. But such thoughts would be untrue. I am energised by parties, at least when the novelty remains. I enjoy the thrill of the game, for a game they are. However, just as a diet of party appetizers would fail to nourish, so the thin gruel of party interactions and conversations palls after time.

So, though it was fun while it lasted, I am not sorry to see the Great Party Season end. I long for the opportunity to let the party answers marinate in the complexities of developing friendships, to see the glittery shell dissolve, the fibrous protective sheaves below the shell slowly part and allow, eventually, the delicate naked humanness within to be revealed.