Monday, December 8, 2008

Down in Mexico

There were only two others that early morning on the clanking bus from Puerto Escondido: a young Mexican poet and his traveling companion, an auto mechanic from Mexico City. They were engrossed in talk about the government. I was heading south along the Oaxacan coast, seeking refuge from the deep Alaskan winter.

We were rolling along a sparse stretch of road near Pochutla when the poet suddenly switched over into English to ask if I wanted to visit a peaceful beach where one could stay "cheaply and in silence if you want to." He said the accommodations would be Spartan by my overblown American standards, but after my short experience in Puerto Escondido where rowdy Americans packed the beaches with their blaring stereos and hucksters walked about with chintzy wares, I was more than willing to try another standard.

From where the bus deposited us along the highway, we hiked along a four-mile stretch of dirt road, beyond a failed and deserted resort hotel and through a dark grove of banana trees to a breath-taking crescent of beach where huts jutted from beneath the foliage.

The poet led us to the northernmost cliff of the crescent. This was Shambala, a hammocks-only retreat run by an American woman who had fled to Mexico in the 1960s to escape what she saw as a war-torn culture with crumbling spiritual values. I learned later that it had been a rough transit for Gloria, who lost her husband and then her daughter to the unpredictable currents that lurked just outside the safety of the cove. Yet there she was, a smile played out across her face as she welcomed us and directed us to a string of hammocks that faced out into the mild southern wind.

The poet had been right. After a few days, I was baked clean by the sun, and I sat by night under a waxing January moon and thought nothing of the gloomy winter that I had abandoned. I met travelers from Europe, Australia, and South America -- wanderers who had shunned the glittery and obnoxious resorts in favor of simple pleasure. We used pit toilets and washed in the morning at the community well -- not for everyone, I suppose.

I learned that the nearby resort hotel had failed because of the dangerous rip tides and the absence of gift shops and discotheques. There seemed to be a curse as well: the beach had been named ZĂ­polite, “Bay of the Damned,” I was told. A huge sea-mount rose from the waves from which, apparently, Spanish conquistadors had thrown hundreds of non-reforming Indians into the sea. I was not sure how much of the story was simply folklore, but it seemed to explain the vengeful tides which had borne off Gloria’s family members.

During the second week I joined the poet, his mechanic friend, and an Italian traveler in a hike over the northern bluffs. It was a rough mule track, but we found a narrow lagoon just beneath an overhang, and the water was heavenly. After we had swum and sunned ourselves for several hours, we spotted a slight man in gray slacks and a fedora, who sat alone with a book on the outcrop of rock above us.

I invited him down, but he replied in pleasant, broken English that he preferred to be alone. An odd bird.

And at twilight, when he joined us for coffee on the cliffs of Shambala he offered little in conversation that would change my impression of him. The poet and mechanic were engaged in a cup-slamming round of backgammon, so the Italian man and I wandered up the beach in search of the barracuda fisherman who had been cooking dinners of the catch of the day, black beans, and tortillas.

After dessert, we were lounging in the sand under the full moon when the man in the fedora came up and, after polite conversation, he declared himself a Shaman, interested only in our welfare. The Italian man rolled his eyes.

Quite uninvited, the Shaman touched him gingerly on the neck.

“Your muscles are tight like steel, he said. "With grief.”

The Italian man bristled, “It’s my rheumatism -- the cold water of the lagoon.”

“Not so,” said the Shaman. “It is from the loss of a woman, named . . . Isabella. In Murano…. In Italy.”

The Italian man slouched in the sand and began to weep. He shuddered for a little while and then he seemed at peace. We did not speak again for the rest of our time there.

That moment, under the fat Oaxacan moon, I was certain that there was no way on earth that I was going to let that Shaman lay a hand on me. But in those blurry years, I was terrified of self-knowledge.

1 comment:

Mark R. said...

Great story with wonderfully bright and vivid details. I felt as if I had been with you on that beach. Maybe I wish I had been. Maybe next time.