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 Рmere trifles measured on any rational scale Рbecome 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 saut̩ed 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!)?