Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Colors of the Sea

Today, my 52nd birthday, marks two weeks that we’ve been in Mexico.

Sunset from our rooftop.
After a grueling and fascinating two-day drive caravanning with my sister from San Diego to California Baja Sur, we were accompanied by an intense sunset during the last leg from La Paz to Todos Santos. In the charming downtown, we ate our initiatory Mexican dinner in an open-air restaurant. 

Then my sister led us the last ten minutes south to El Pescadero. After passing through the shadows of the tiny pueblo, we took a right on an unmarked dirt road. Our blue Subaru earned its all-wheel drive cred bumping toward the ocean in the dark. When we got to our small resort, dogs came out to greet us. We soon learned this place is dog heaven, an off-leash life.

That night, we dragged our stuff into our empty casita and collapsed on an air mattress. A few hours later, my body awoke to mattress sag. The re-inflating mechanism was so loud that my sister, whose place is next door, said she thought we were making smoothies in the middle of the night.

The next few days meant facing the reality of what we’d done. We were owners of a house in a foreign country, near an incredible beach and town—a house that needed furniture, a refrigerator, curtains, air conditioning, and a washer/dryer. It lacked cabinets and a bar/counter to complete the kitchen and bathroom. The talavera sink had to be installed in the bathroom. The one plant in the yard, a palm tree, was dead, a victim of Hurricane Odile. We didn’t even own a broom, a sponge, a beach umbrella, a local cell phone.

Our To-Do list was epic. And handling it all in shaky Spanish? Amidst a culture where things are done in a different style and pace? In the middle of a dusty resort that has a lot of construction going on? The only choice was take it easy, a bit at a time. Poco a poco.

In 14 days, I’ve had (only) two meltdowns. In each case going to bed helped (that is, after we said adios to the leaky air bed and hola to a real mattress).

I’ve also been doing yoga and meditating. I remind myself that a beach walk, a soak in the Jacuzzi, and a swim in the pool are incredible amenities. As is being a homeowner, especially in a place with a built-in community.

Hermanas con perro.

Having so many great people around has been a life saver. My sister, her friends who’ve become our new friends, other casita residents, and the resort staff—everyone has been a font of information and, most importantly, bienvenidos.

Without a working kitchen, we collaborated with my sister to make meals in hers. Our bilingual friend Paul took us on a trip to Los Cabos (an hour south) to help us buy a slew of things and arrange to have them delivered. The next day, Dave and I went alone, an hour east, to La Paz stores.

We’ve been to Todos Santos many times, buying other furniture and food. We’ve been to several excellent restaurants, including the one here at the resort that serves pizza made in a wood-fired oven by the pool. Our favorite is a pescaderia that serves the freshest (and cheapest) fish tacos ever. Down the street is a little tienda where we buy handmade tortillas. Dave almost wept the first time he held the warm bundle in his hands.

Whenever we drive around and see the leftover ravages of the hurricane—buildings and homes and cacti toppled—I’m reminded of our incredible fortune. Nothing of ours was destroyed. We have shelter, food, and water. And each other.

Unharmed cacti.

In just two weeks, we’ve enjoyed cocktail parties and meals on neighbors’ roofs, watching the sunset. We’ve dipped into the warm ocean waters and taken long beach walks. We went to the Farmer’s Market and live music on the playa.

We’ve had incredible conversations with people, most of whom—like us—live alternative lives. One was a young Polish woman we picked up hitchhiking; she was traveling Baja alone. Another was a Swiss couple on bikes who’d ridden all the way down from Canada.

Some people have retired here. Others have young children. Some live in Cabo or La Paz and come here for the weekends. One guy lives here a few months at a time, spending the rest of the year working in the states. Some live to surf or fish or just be near the sea. Others love four-wheeling or hiking through the desert hills. Some were born here. Others fell in love with Mexico and never wanted to leave.

Every once in a while an odd feeling seizes me. A sense that we’ve jumped off the biggest cliff ever. Funny I’d say that after all we’ve gone through in the past two years: retirement, getting rid of all our possessions, traveling all over—oh, and brain surgery.

One morning, a few days in, I woke up with anxiety crawling up my skin. I closed my eyes and prayed for new internal space to open up. I felt around inside for the richness of the fertile void. I asked for a sense of something—purpose? clarity? happiness? peace? What did it all mean, this living thing? My mind scrambled around like a rat in a cage.

I went for a beach walk. The ocean, my sanctuary. On my way back, a young man standing with two young women near the surf school asked me in Spanish if I knew how far it was to the bus stop. I pointed down our dirt road and told him it was probably at least a 20 or 30 minute walk. He seemed on the edge of tears and—switching to English—told me that a friend had brought them to the beach last night and then disappeared. He said his mom was going to be worried about him; he couldn’t call her because his cell phone ran out of juice. They were in their early twenties and from Guadalajara.

I guess they’d spent the night on the beach. They looked exhausted. They reminded me of my students. I said, “Wait here. I have a car. I will drive you there.”

A surge of energy and joy blasted through me. I ran to our casita and grabbed three bottles of water and three granola bars. I hopped in the car, blasted the A/C, and drove over to get them. As we bumped down the dusty, rutted road, they drank the water and tore into the food.

“Can I be your dog?” he joked. We all laughed. Clearly, they couldn’t believe their luck. I couldn’t believe mine, either.  

So, we are two weeks in, and I’m writing at my computer on my new little rustic table. Jazz plays from speakers attached to Dave’s hard drive that holds thousands of songs. The house is filled with furniture, a washer/dryer, a fridge, and new talavara sink. A sweet new palm is planted in our yard. We even have a dresser. What a luxury to have my clothes in drawers after so many months in suitcases.

Three guys are installing the A/C right now. Another guy has been in and out, working on the finishing touches of our kitchen counter. I was able to string together Spanish words to create Frankenstein sentences that seemed to work, more or less.

Yesterday, our neighbor Kimberly, who makes jewelry, mentioned she’s collecting driftwood on which to display her work. On Dave’s and my morning beach walk, I found three pieces that I brought to her. She hugged me, said they were perfect. Later, she came by to wish me happy birthday. Then she fitted me with an anklet the colors of the sea.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Many changes: made possible by the fertile void

On November 9--what would have been my mom's 82nd birthday--Dave and I head to Mexico to our new little house. For the two-day drive from San Diego to Baja California Sur, we're caravaning with my sister. She said she feels like Mom will be guiding us.

Rear view of Casita Once.

When Dave and I set out to live a nomadic life a year and a half ago, we had no idea we'd end up with a Mexican casita for a home base. In June 2013, immediately after I turned in my grades at the university for the last time, we flew to L.A.

Next we planned to go to Australia, Boston and Cape Cod, Hawaii, India, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong. An eclectic itinerary based primarily on being with friends during the best seasons (e.g., "let's avoid monsoons" and "let's hang out with our friends when it's best for them").

We also had an idea that we'd like to spend winter in the mountains. We found a four-month ski house rental in Tahoe through Airbnb, which we shared with friends.

Strung together, those plans would take ten months. After that, who knew?

We didn't factor in brain surgery. That happened two months in, after I had a seizure in Cape Cod.

Post-surgery, the opportunity popped up to buy a casita in El Pescadero, near Todos Santos. We'd never been there. We'd never seen the resort, except through online photos. The casita was still under construction.

We loved Mexico. We'd taken a great trip to Mexico City, and over the years we'd both spent time in different parts of the country. My sister had been going down to the tip of Baja for more than twenty years and knew the resort well. The price was insanely affordable.

These are the logical reasons. But our decision wasn't based on logic. Around the time of my surgery, I'd had a revelation, words downloaded from the ether: I want to live within walking distance of swimmable water.

To embark on our odyssey, we'd left the town of my dreams: Santa Cruz. We loved it there, but it was time to let it go.

We dove off the cliff of the known into the unknown, the fertile void. We were making space for new things. And new things always come.

Turns out, the casita is a five minute walk to a sweet beach. And there's a pool and jacuzzi at the resort. (And it has both an indoor and outdoor shower!). Water, water, everywhere.

Playa Cerritos

I'm not sure I would have known so clearly, so intuitively, that buying the place--using a large chunk of our savings--was the exact right thing to do if I hadn't just undergone brain surgery. The fertile void had delivered.

The casita was #11, our favorite number. The number of balance, of lining up with life. We named our new place Casita Once, "House Eleven."

Fast-forward a year: we will be seeing Casita Once for the first time next week. It's small. One bedroom, tiny kitchen, backyard, rooftop patio. And it's empty.

Our car is filled with most everything we own: a blow-up bed, sheets, towels, Rummikub, miscellaneous kitchen items, and the framed mermaid print Dave gave me for my birthday four years ago. We plan to haunt the stores of Cabo, Todos Santos and La Paz for furniture and appliances. I love the idea of starting from scratch. Lots of color, no clutter.

After seventeen months of nomadic life, it's kind of stunning to think we will be setting up house. Our house. In a foreign country. I'm hoping my dusty Spanish will kick in.

We'd love to have visitors! It's a quick flight to Cabo from many places. A shuttle will take you to town, where we can pick you up and drive you down the dirt road to our place. The resort has many options--from hotel rooms to palapas to casitas--that start at $75 a night.

We aren't sure how long we will be in Baja. On a visitor's visa we can stay up to six months. If we ever decide to live there permanently, we can apply for a long-term visa.

We also aren't sure if and when we will have wifi coverage in our casita. But at the palapa near the pool we can sign in. We will not have international phones, so the best way to contact us while we are south of the border is email and Facebook. If you'd like to call and/or text in real-time, we have Viber and WhatsApp and Skype.

So. Onward. As Stanley Kunitz writes:

I have walked through many lives...
every stone on the road
precious to me. ...
I am not done with my many changes. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

L.A. Living

Nomadic living is a life of contrasts. After housesitting for two months in a large, custom built house in a Pacific Northwest forest, we are now house- (or I should say apartment-) sitting smack-dab in West Hollywood. Instead of bird sounds and trees swaying in the wind, we hear sirens, car alarms and blaring rap. Instead of running two huge golden retrievers at the beach, we walk a sturdy little pug named Duke down city streets and on canyon hikes.

Runyon Canyon with Duke and L.A. skyline

After the slow life in a small town, we were both a bit rattled by the L.A. traffic and noise. But as usual, a few days in and we--adaptive creatures that we are--were buzzing around town by car and on foot, checking out quirky stores and restaurants, and letting everyone from children to homeless guys pet the adorable Duke, who is a people- and dog-magnet. 

Santa Monica Blvd.

Oh, and then there was Halloween. It just so happened that our stay here corresponded with one of the largest and craziest Halloween gatherings in the world. 500,000 people in elaborate costumes and six stages with bands. It was such a wild scene it felt like another planet. And all we had to do was fashion costumes from our scant suitcase belongings then mosey down the street.

Some of the tamer costumes.

Girls just wanna have fun!

Prior to our housesit, we stayed a weekend with L.A. friends and a week with other friends in Ventura County. We boogied down at two Raw Oyster Cult shows and a Phish show, surrounded by a  love-krewe.

Phish at the Forum

If this wasn't enough, we watched several World Series games with our friends' three boys (twins age 9 and a 7-year-old), all big Giants fans. And we saw the WIN at Barney's Beanery, an L.A. institution, which we walked to from the apartment.

L.A. has turned out to be a haven of connection. One of our friends just happened to be in town from Phoenix with her girlfriend who is Cambodian. We met in Chinatown--my first time there--and ate incredibly delicious and inexpensive Cambodian food, ordered by our resident expert. We then walked the streets and popped into some other food places to get super-cheap pork buns and baked goods to-go.

Five people, and we ate almost all of it!  (photo by Chhoun Chan Rasmey)
One evening we went to Suzanne Rico's house, the daughter of my beloved mentor and other-mother Gabriele Rico. She and her hubby made us a fabulous meal, and we enjoyed hanging out with them and their boys. Suzanne and I both have the wanderlust and writing genes, so we had a lot to talk about.

Suzanne's son Ado checking out the treats from a West Hollywood Russian bakery.

Then this morning my longtime friend and her husband revved up the Maserati (another first for me!) and drove us to Santa Monica for breakfast at Patrick's Roadhouse--a super-charming place where we ate phat food on the balcony overlooking the ocean.

All of this feels like a kind of extended bon voyage since in a week we will be driving down to our new pad in Baja. Every day is the turning of a page. A new chapter awaits.