6. Puerto Escondido

The late afternoon sun angled toward the Pacific, painting our first view of Puerto Escondido a rosy gold that blushed across the buildings, fanning up the hillside from a strip of sand. Puffs of cumulus clouds congregated above the ocean, and reached toward the lighthouse that presides over a point rising sharply behind the old fishing village and marks the north corner of the mouth of the bay. The cobbled waterfront thoroughfare, shaded by tall coconut palms on the beach side was closed to all but foot traffic. We parked and walked.

Trees, bushes, and vines, blooming in a Crayola rainbow of colors, cascaded down the slope from every wall, gate and rooftop on the opposite side of the street. Stone steps twisted up between the tourist and surf shops, restaurants, bars and tiendas that brimmed with ripe mangoes, succulent papayas, trays of astringent smelling limes and oranges, and sweet, bee-attracting pineapples. I craned around corners and doors, snapping pictures, and hoping to discover the mystery of each enticing passage as it disappeared around the high, glass-topped stone walls.

Parsley strained against her leash, sniffing the smells with gusto. For an old girl she maintained her curiosity, and in Mexico, everything smelled interesting to a dog.

Sam stopped in front of a bar and sniffed the air. “Aren’t surfers a bunch of stoners?” he asked, wrinkling his nose.

“Keep your DEA badge in your pocket.”

“What are you getting at? It’s a Marin County sheriff’s badge.” Sam’s look would have frozen hell. “Let’s get going. Quit taking pictures. I’m tired and hungry.”

I focused my lens on Sam’s familiar frown. Click. Click.

“Put that damn camera away.”

A trio of pedestrians turned toward us, inquisitive.

“Quit nagging me. You’re such a stick-in-the-mud,” I said and raised my eyebrows at the tourists, as if to say it was out of my hands.

“You’re selfish and irresponsible. I’m going to find somewhere to sleep tonight.” He spun on his heel and stalked off in the direction of the parked camper. A sensation of giddy lightness came over me, and I grinned at the passers-by.

“Are you coming?” He demanded from several feet away.

A slight gust of wind rattled the palms. “I thought you were leaving,” I said, slowing my pace.

“Don’t sound so happy.”

3. Déjà vu

When Sam cleared customs at the Mexico City airport, lugging the promised suitcase along with his own bulging duffle, I had already fallen into the easy groove of Spanish classes, cooking, and lively cultural exchanges at Instituto Cutural Oaxaca and settled comfortably at the Maldonaldo’s home with Parsley, my twelve-year-old German Shepherd.

The drive between Mexico City and Oaxaca took about twelve hours in the old VW bus, and we planned to drive all night; I didn’t want to miss any lessons. Sam, Parsley, and I had traveled by car plenty over our eight years together: through the Pacific Northwest, several trips down the Baja Peninsula—once pulling a 23’ sailboat on a trailer, up the Australian eastern seaboard, Brisbane to Cairns, and a month in Mexico and Belize. We had it down, the rhythm of the road. Drive and ride, drive and sleep, pit-stop, walk the dog, eat, change drivers.

“I’ll drive first—you sleep,” I offered. “I can get us out of the city and onto 190 through Cuautla by dark. Then you drive.” It was six p.m. I had left Oaxaca at five that morning and was exhausted.

West of Cuautla the sun disappeared behind the distant dead volcanoes, their dark peaks worn to two-dimensional flatness against the yellowy haze of sky, fading to ash with the twilight. Earlier in the day, I’d crossed this prehistoric valley, with its moonscape of cones jutting here and there from the vast expanse of empty grassland and experienced the strangest sense of déjà vu.

I knew this place. I had planted corn kernels in the rocky, fertile soil. See my brown stick-like legs jutting from the thread-bare hem of my rough jute-colored tunic, my dusty feet bound to leather soles by strips of tanned hide. See my pointed stick plunge into the ground. See my calloused, rough-working hand dip into the cloth bag, drop the seed into the hole. Look about, see the others, dark-skinned against their light tunics, ragged black hair flowing forward across bent shoulders—dig, reach, drop, dig, reach, drop—against the backdrop of smoking cones.

This is why I’d come to Mexico, I thought—to decode my night-time dreams. I wanted to dig my ancient roots, uncover a recondite heritage within my blood. And I was going to write about it. I’d been in Mexico for over two months and so far, this valley held the strongest pull, the sharpest vision. I thrilled to my discovery.

“Ann, I can’t live without you.” Sam’s voice rushed between our Caddy seats, urgent, jarring.

I flinched, startled back from my past-life musings. “What?”

“I need you, please give me the excuse to finalize the divorce,” he mumbled, his hang-dog body language barking “loser.”

“Get over it, Sam. Don’t bring me into it—if you don’t love your wife and don’t want to be married to her—get a divorce.”

I’d dumped Sam two years before when he ran off to Belize to chase drug smugglers on a DEA contract, and I didn’t want him following me around Mexico, spoiling my big adventure. But I was the one who called for help after the heist of my suitcases and there we were, driving together toward Oaxaca and the Instituto.