19. D-Day


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The moon, a shrouded crescent, slipped into the Pacific during breakfast. Fernando and I had dragged ourselves off the beach just before daybreak but the heat in my combi forced me up to join Sam and Gerardo at the coffee pot.

“What time did you come in?” Sam asked, eyes squeezed to narrow slits.

“One?” I took a gulp of Sam’s weak coffee. Tepid. “Why didn’t you drip this into the thermos?”

“Yeah? My clock said it was five.”

I flicked the coffee into the dirt. “I’ll make another pot. Move.” I pushed past Sam’s chair and began to rummage around for the coffee making supplies. We’d spent the night on the beach? Time had shifted from normal hours and minutes to something non-dimensional—a perpetual now, marked only by the rising sliver of moon who had projected her pale beam across the placid sea in transit to the eastern horizon. I tipped purified water from the garrafón into the kettle and set it onto a burner.

Buenas días,” Fernando greeted us as he came around the bus. He yawned and rubbed at the scruffy looking stubble on his chin.

“Coffee?”

. The old guy went fishing. Give me a couple of pesos and I’ll get a fish for breakfast.”

“Sam, do you have a couple of pesos? Fernando will buy a fish,” I translated.

“Why should I buy your boyfriend’s breakfast?”

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I could hear the slap-slap-slap-slap of hands patting balls of masa to flat corn pancakes, and fished into the cargo net hanging over the seats for a five thousand peso note, about forty-two cents. I handed it over to Fernando. “Get tortillas, too.” He could go charm the fishwife and close that “bad eye” that cast a withering stare in our direction.

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After breakfast I donned my flower patterned maillot and we went down onto the beach.Scan

Fernando  looked sexy in skimpy aqua and black zebra-stripped bikini trunks and Sam, dowdy in my canvas “outback” hat, wore a white undershirt and black leather tennis shoes, his legs, jutting from the stone-colored shorts, white as a cadaver. The men smiled at each other, Fernando like a cat about to spit and Sam in disgust.

Fernando & Hal

 “D Day” October 29, 1991.  Fernando Leon Torrens vs. Sam H. Miller. 

The sense of non-dimensional time overcame me as we lounged in the sun near the spot where Fernando and I had stopped time the night before. The sand was thick near the cliffs marking the end of the beach. We conversed in a desultory Spanish. Fernando knew almost no English and how tired we were made it hard to do much beyond give each other goo-goo-eyes. Gerardo had stayed back at his vehicle to drink. Parsley, panting, left the hole she had been digging and stretched.

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“You want to go for a walk girl?” Sam asked her.

“She probably wants water,” I said and poured a cup from my bottle. She lapped it greedily. My dog wasn’t much of a sun worshipper. “Let’s go down the beach and see what we can find. Doesn’t that look like a beach restaurant?” I pointed into the distance.

“Yeah. Maybe they have beer.”

18. On My Way


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I lit the Coleman lantern and Emiliano Zapata tottered off to his

“Where’s the lantern fuel?” Sam asked as the Coleman sputtered and faded.

“In the cabinet. Can you stick in Dr. Loco while you’re inside?” After eating, I was feeling frisky—maybe a little baila to “Muevetè” would be in order. Dr. Loco’s Rockin’ Jalepeño Band was made up of a bunch of university professors and students, some from Stanford, and often played in the Bay Area. I’d bought a cassette at a concert at College of Marin, one of my two tapes in Spanish. This would impress Fernando, I thought.

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“Let’s listen to Simon and Garfunkle.”

“Sure, after.”

“Trying to impress your new boyfriend?”

Oh, good lord, Sam had to go. Where was Fernando? It was completely dark and the roar of the waves breaking on the shore sounded closer and louder than before. The heat radiated out of the sandy ground in the cooling evening air and millions of stars pierced the navy blue sky. It would have been perfect, if only. . .  .

“Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson . . .” played. I glared at Sam, but it was hard to be angry with Simon and Garfunkle singing. He screwed a new canister of propane onto the lantern, set the Coleman onto the table, lit it with a soft pop, sat down, and tossed the empty to me.

c162b144abb3bfff188c3ecbc020b781“So we’ll get out of here in the morning and go to Huatulco. Club Med. Without the Mexicans,” he said. “Hand me my book, would ya. It’s on top of the cabinet.”

“Sure,” I answered. I tossed the spent canister into the garbage bag and handed him a dog-eared paperback. Fernando had just stepped over the low wall surrounding the “house” and my stomach did that little baila—butterflies dancing—as the Maná song went.

“Hey. What’s up with the old lady?” I asked him, gesturing toward the wing chair.

“Religious. She doesn’t approve of men and women traveling together. I said you and Sam are married and she relaxed.” He drummed his fingers in time to the “59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin Groovy)” and smiled. “Me gusta mucho Simon y Garfunkle.”images-2

“Hey, good musical choice, Sam. Fernando likes them too,” I said in English, and then in Spanish, “So you think we’re safe?”

“Ask him if these bandits are going to rob us in the night,” Sam demanded.

“We’ll be okay,” Fernando said.

“Okay? He said Okay?” Sam leaned around the hissing lantern to see me on the other side of the table.

“Sam, you’ve studied more Spanish than I have. You can understand him. We’re okay, and tomorrow, after checking this place out, we’ll leave.”

“What do you mean? We’re leaving first thing. As soon as it’s light.”

I rolled my eyes at Fernando, who could see me clearly. He jerked his head. “Come on, let’s go check out the beach,” he said.

“What did he say?”

“Fernando wants to know if we’d like to walk down to the beach.” Parsley perked up her ears at the word walk.

“And just leave our stuff alone? You go with your boyfriend, I’ll stay and watch camp,” he said, his words trailing off into the implied it’s what you want, poor me.

“Come, Sam. We’ll lock up. Everything will be fine,” I said crossing my fingers behind my back to mitigate my lie and stood up. Parsley woofed and bounded from under the table, snuffling and wagging into Fernando’s open hands. They’d already fallen in love, and I saw the shadow of recognition cross Sam’s eyes. He knew what was coming, perhaps before I did. If my dog loved him, I would too.

Sam got up and pushed past me into the bus “I’m going to bed. Take your key.” he almost spat the words at me.

Fernando had followed the exchange closely and asked, “¿Todo esta bien?”

Si, vamanos a la playa, yes, let’s go to the beach,” I said and grabbed my chair.

 He grinned and grabbed his.

“Night Sam,” I said as he slammed the camper’s door shut.

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Fernando and I skirted around the silent hovel, guided by my flashlight. I flicked it off when we cleared the house and hit the deep sand shining under the brilliant sky. The waves breaking onto the shore rumbled peacefully, a lion purring in its slumber. The rich odor of un-groomed seashore tantalized my nose—it smelled like home or the home in Sausalito’s Waldo Point Harbor I’d given up to come on this crazy adventure. 10libI felt a little prick of hot tears at the corners of my eyes. For just a moment I missed my houseboat and my funky Schoonmaker Building office, my eclectic bunch of bookkeeping and tax clients, my family, and yes, even the almost ten years I’d shared with Sam—but that had ended when he signed up as a contractor with the DEA and left to chase drug shipments through Belize and the jungles of Guatemala. He left me behind and I’d learned to live just fine without him, thank you very much. And now I was on my own quest. But what was I looking for?images-6

Whatever I was after, the ghostly white beach, the rich balmy air, the gentle roar of the surf, the luminescent foam cresting off the waves, and a hot guy slipping his hand into mine as we trudged to the tide line was lighting me on fire. I trudged into my future, giddy with anticipation. The Past wasn’t going to hold me back, no matter how nostalgic—I was on my way.

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9. Runny Eggs Seasoned with Snipe


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Sam chose the most gringo-style restaurant on the walking mall for breakfast. His limited taste in food ranked high in my canon of reasons to break up—but not as high as becoming a nark when his private investigation firm tanked.

Runny eggs seasoned with Sam’s snipes for breakfast. I envied the fishermen their happy banter and delectable smelling tidbits served from the giant blue pots. It didn’t matter what trivial disagreement we argued over, for me it was always about the same thing and I was still angry about it: Sam took a contract job with the DEA chasing cocaine dealers through the jungle in Belize two years before, straining our relationship to breaking. I threw him out one night in the midst of a lamp smashing, shouting match on our houseboat in Sausalito.

Although Sam had followed me down to my language school with a suitcase of clothes after the camper burglary, I was enjoying my single status and not rushing to make up. He hoped I might change my mind, but I resented his presence. Why couldn’t he understand that I didn’t want him there? This was my big adventure. But devastated at the loss of my five suitcases and the lack of concern on the part of the Oaxaca police, and with only the jeans and t-shirt I was wearing at the time, I called Sam.

I still don’t know what I was thinking! I was fine, Parsley was fine, and they were only clothes after all, but Sam and I had enjoyed traveling together— Australia, Belize, Mexico—camping or sailing or touring, it always was an adventure. Somehow—the shock and sense of violation after the robbery—I forgot another of the canon: I am the adventurous one. Left up to Sam, we’d have sat in a seedy hotel bar drinking Miller and eating grilled cheese sandwiches on Wonder bread, and that’s exactly what he wanted.

I agreed that I would put up with him‑as a friend‑ if he brought me some new clothes and a printer for my portable Toshiba computer. I was ecstatic that the ladrones—thieves—hadn’t found the secret compartment built in between the front seats that held the computer, my Nikon camera and lenses, and the pullout Clarion tape deck I installed before leaving. They weren’t very astute robbers because they left behind the 350 hp Honda gas generator that plugged into the electrical system and ran the computer, printer, and lamp anywhere I chose to stop and write.

Breakfast over and our provisioning accomplished at the under stocked and over priced tourist grocery store, we returned to camp to put on bathing suits and get ready for the beach. Three months in Mexico and I had lost an entire dress size.

“Must be the salsa!” I told Parsley as I slid out of my dress and into a new bikini and sarong for my day at the shore.

“Your turn,” I said, stepping out of the bus and smoothing the netting back into place.

“Why don’t you trot over there and meet the guys from California. I bet they want to go to the beach with you.”Sam spoke in his most obnoxious tone and gestured his hairless, perspiration damp pate toward the orange combi. images-1

Now what was he mad about? I glanced over to the lifeless bus whose license plate read: Mexico DF—Distrito Federal.

“It’s from Mexico City.”

“Whatever. Take them to the beach,” he said.

“Aren’t you coming with me?” I hoped Sam didn’t hear the hopeful glee in my voice as I walked off toward the gate, Parsley at my side.

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8. I Can Really Pick ’em


 

Boats

Photo by kateburtonblog.co.uk

The laughter of fishermen woke me at 7:00 A.M., the camper already a slow cooking oven in the heat. A sheen of sweat covered my skin. I stretched and pulled myself out of the sheets to look through the no-see-um netting Velcroed into the door opening. The edge of the bay lay about seventy-five feet away. Tiny waves foamed onto the shore where the jolly pod of fishermen clustered, cleaning early catches, mending nets, or preparing to launch the green, yellow and red pangas. Catcalling and laughter between boats drifted my way, but gulls, squabbling over bits of discarded fish guts, drowned out the fishermen’s conversations with their grating calls.

Four or five stout women in shiny dresses appeared, hefting gigantic blue enamel pots and baskets laden with steaming tortillas wrapped in bright napkins. They began to dish up breakfast for their men into clay bowls. The rich smell of tortillas and roasted chilies got my stomach to rumbling.

Sam sat in the shade in one of the folding oak “archaeologist” chairs and watched the scene. “It’s about time you woke up.”

My shoulders tensed. “It’s barely seven.”

“I’m ready for breakfast. C’mon. Hurry up.”

“Did you make coffee?” I asked as I hauled myself out of the camper and into the cooler, dappled shade of the coconut palms.

Sam hadn’t bothered—why did I ask? I grabbed my towel  from the locker and ambled off to Las Palmas’ bathhouse.

Luxuriating in the warm stream of water, I complimented myself on my ability to pick a park and thought about the trailer park I’d stayed at in Puerto Vallarta.

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My bus had limped into town after losing a shock absorber on my first harrowing trek down a drenched and treacherous mountain road, and I hadn’t taken the time to check-out the facilities before paying the tariff—triple what I paid elsewhere. It turned out the park was located just south of a pig farm and the breeze off the Pacific blew through the sty into my windows. To make matters worse, there was not another soul camping there. If I hadn’t been so tired from the arduous drive from Mazatlán, I might have noticed the lack of company and the barnyard smell, but I paid the twelve dollars and went to bed.

In the morning when I went to the bathhouse for a shower, I found, as the night attendant had claimed, the water was hot and would last as long as I would, but he neglected to mention the reptiles, insects, and mad dogs who would be bathing with me. That shower room was filthy. It was the first hot shower I’d encountered since Tucson ten days before, and I couldn’t touch anything—including the water. I  learned my lesson—check first—and then moved to a hotel.

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“The showers are great, Sam. This park was a good choice.”

“I’d be more comfortable in a hotel in Huatulco. Can’t you hurry up?”

How had Sam managed to survive without a Hilton in the jungles of the Peten while he chased drug runners for the DEA?

FullSizeRenderI pulled the embroidered drop-waist ropa típica sundress, bought in Oaxaca City after my suitcases were stolen, over my head and we left Las Palmas to rustle up some breakfast.

The orange combi glowed through the palm trees in a shaft of sunlight as we passed.

7. All I Wanted Was Some Dinner


Las Palmas Trailer Park hunkered in a coconut grove at the north end of the bay. The camping spaces, defined by the trees, had brick barbecues with metal grates. Although the park was sparsely populated, I felt safe enough because of the tall chain link fence separating me from the beach, but Sam complained that it was too empty.

“Where are all the surfers staying?” He asked, squinting his eyes into a frown as if the surfers purposely hid.

I ignored him and checked the bathrooms. They worked. They had real toilet paper rather than rolls of brown crepe paper that might be left over from some celebration a decade past like the t.p. at Pepe’s Trailer Park in Zihuatanejo. The shower water even felt warmish—a plus.

“The bathrooms are okay. We’ll stay.”

We staked our claim halfway to the beach entrance. I sat in the wide side door of the combi and gazed toward the mouth of the bay across a fleet of low, open boats drawn up on the sand like colorful beached whales, but I didn’t start to unpack. Instead I thrust a folding chair toward Sam and handed him one of the Pacifico beers I picked up at the tienda. I figured he couldn’t talk if he had a beer bottle to his lips.

Parsley was giving me that “feed me” look. I fixed her bowl.

“That place smells good,” I said of a tiny taco joint visible at the edge of the trailer park. “Let’s get dinner.”

“Are you nuts? Looks worse than the roach-coach back home.”

“Then what do you want?”

“Aren’t there any coffee shops here?”

Parsley finished eating and we strolled onto the esplanade.

“What about that one?” I pointed to a place tucked under a thatched roof with blaring salsa music.

He looked at a menu posted by the entrance. “I want a hamburger,” and walked on.

“You won’t find a Lyons.”

We strolled to the end of the esplanade, reading menus and quibbling over which to choose: too dirty—too expensive—no hamburgers. All I wanted was some dinner. A quesadilla, tacos, whatever.

“Isn’t that where you’re supposed to meet William and Kathleen?” He thrust his chin toward a dumpy looking cinderblock building with faded paint and peeling trim, squatting at the edge of the street. An old sign said “Sports Bar” and the familiar flicker of television lit the interior. Sam trudged up the several steps to the door. “They have hamburgers.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.” I said when we stepped inside. A sports bar, indeed. Two huge TVs showed games and the patrons crowding the small, smoky room shouted and cheered in English.

Sam marched toward a table, but stopped and threw himself into reverse like a cartoon character when he realized the smoke was coming from numerous joints passing through the crowd. “Let’s get out of here.”

I looked forward to the World Series and that Acapulco Gold.

We settled on a restaurant across the esplanade from Las Palmas. Our waiter brought a dish of scraps along with the bowl of water we ordered for Parsley. My huachinango mojo de ajo was fresh and grilled perfectly. The fish was so delicious, I forgot to fight with Sam.

After dinner with our bellies full, and our attitudes toward one another more kindly, Sam and I cruised with the flow of tourists, lovers, drunk surfers, and locals, noting places to explore in the coming days before we returned to Las Palmas to set-up camp.

Palm fronds clacked in the gentle sea breeze and the balmy night smelled fresh and salty. Sam snored inside my no-see-um-netted bus. I was lost in Gabriel Garcia Marques’ Love in the Time of Cholera when an orange combi pulled into our trailer park close to midnight. I paid little attention. Parsley, on-duty at the edge of my tiny circle of light, kept watch on the two men who emerged from the VW, set-up camp and disappeared back into the bus, pulling the door closed behind them with a thwunk.

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.”

4. Ruta 175


I returned my attention to the present and the ribbon of tar, at times barely a car width, which wound higher into the Oaxacan mountains. The afternoon air became crisp and fresh. Astringent scents of mountain pine and wood smoke swirled through our open windows. In places the mist hung heavy in the trees. Adobe huts gave way to wooden cottages that were scattered farther and farther from their neighbors. The spectacular scenery unfolded as we rounded each bend. Fresh water streams spilled over tumbled stones and fell down steep cliffs, disappearing into fern-lined canyons. In sunny pockets, brilliant red, yellow and orange flowers crowded against the dark forest. The people we saw wore woolen clothes and hats, stout boots, and thick woven shawls to protect against the chilling dampness of the shadows. We shivered in shorts and sandals.

“I’m cold,” I said. “Let’s stop for some lunch and change into something warmer. Are you hungry?”

“I could use some coffee. This road beats hell—what have you gotten me into?”

A bright fire burned in a large fireplace along one wall and local crafts and paintings hung above it. Hand-loomed yellow cloths brightened the handful of square wooden tables filling the room. Opposite the fire a little bar and the door into the kitchen took much of the wall-space. Most amazing was the north-facing picture window that looked over the rugged peaks to the end of the earth, farther than my eye could see.

The nameless restaurant wasn’t listed in any of my guidebooks, but appeared like a miraculous vision. We hunkered down in front of the restaurant’s fireplace to sip our steaming mugs of sweet café de olla and waited in silence for the dueña to serve her mole de guajillo.

Back on the road, a black blanket of clouds extended below us to the horizon covering the lower range and foothills as we began our westerly descent from the peaks. We slipped under the clouds into a torrential downpour that turned the twisting mountain road into a churning mud-laced rapid. The cloud-forest had thinned and lush tropical jungle crowded the narrow road. Storm-tossed leaves and branches rained down like confetti over a wild parade. We crawled along in first gear.

“God, do you think this road is safe?” I asked Sam. “What if it washes out while we’re on it? What if one of these trees falls on us?” I was scared. It was dark, slippery, hazardous. Brown churning rivers cascaded down the hillsides and were briefly illuminated by the white glare of lightning. We smelled the fried ozone and felt the compression of the thunderous explosions.

“We should pull over and wait it out,” I said.

Sam shifted into second gear, dismissing my suggestion. “Let’s just get off this damn mountain. I can’t see a damn thing. Wipe off the window.”

I bristled but pinched my lips tight against the angry tempest close to bursting from me.

The torrent slacked and trickled to mist, and as it cleared around us, the air was perfumed with exotic flowers and the rich smell of loam. The road, still curvy, wasn’t so steep, and it was no longer a muddy flash flood. The deep black sky lightened and I saw people walking with their burros and baskets from what appeared to be banana groves at the end of the day’s work. Girls clutched stacks of tortillas in embroidered cloths, grandmothers bent under trump lines of firewood, and mothers carried steaming blue enamel pots on their heads while herding their children to dinner. We had arrived in Pochutla. It was the first town since Miahuatlán back on the east slope, and it flanked the intersection of Ruta 200 and Ruta 175 from Oaxaca.

“Turn right at the intersection,” I directed.

Sam maneuvered the bus into a parking space. “Let’s stop and have a beer.”

Dos


Sam and I headed out of Oaxaca onto the narrow country road winding toward the Pacific. We cruised my 1969 VW pop-top camper as though chugging an old Chris Craft along the sloughs of some sleepy delta. The ride felt thick and smooth—I had installed air shocks in place of the regular stiff factory stock.

Villages with tongue twisting names peeked from under profusions of blooming vines. Churches, soccer fields, and markets overflowing with fresh vegetables and fruits, dark skinned families carrying pottery and crafts, and plots of marigolds pungent-ripe with golden flowers drifted by our open windows. The countryside smelled of fresh tortillas, burning chilies, chickens, goats, and the ubiquitous corn. As we ascended the foothills, the terraces of maize stretched into the clouds that hung around the high peaks above us like wooly ruffs.

Sam drove. I popped some old Moody Blues into the tape deck and cranked it up, making it impossible to talk and leaving me plenty of time to savor the shifting view of Mexico. I settled into my wide, red leather seat that some previous owner had pulled out of a Cadillac and installed into the cab.

I could feel Sam rankle, and I didn’t care. I was still pissed-off that he’d followed me from California to Oaxaca—even though he had brought me the suitcase of clothes to replace my entire wardrobe stolen from the camper on my first night in town. It was bad enough that he’d signed up for the same session at my language school, but then he finagled lodging with my hosts. Worse, we’d shared a room for three weeks and I’d settled right in to the old relationship. I hated that it was so familiar, so easy, but mostly I was disgusted with myself for stringing Sam along to soothe my own apprehensions about traveling alone. I’d managed to take care of myself from Mazatlan to Oaxaca over the last two months. What was the matter with me?

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