20. Two Roads Diverged


We picked up our towels, suntan lotion, books, slipped on our flipflops and started the trek to the south end of the beach. The sand felt coarse and the tide frothy on my feet at the tide line. I picked up tiny limpet shells and colored stones.  Empty and clean, few shells, pieces of driftwood or flotsam lined the intertidal zone. This was a deserted beach, quiet except for the surf and the crunch of our footfalls. There might not have been homesteads along it. There weren’t any pangas. Didn’t the people who lived on the beach go to it? My sense of unreality grew stronger. Nearing the structure we’d seen from the north side of the cove, I realized that it sat empty, too. A former beach restaurant definitely closed for beer. I plopped down in the warm sand just beyond a tiny cliff carved by the waves.

“Nothing there. I think I’ll catch a few more rays before lunch.” I said, spreading out my towel.

“We’re leaving.” Sam’s voice sounded petulant.


I hopped up, ran into the surf, dove beneath a breaking wave and paddled in the cool swells. I was too tired to think, but had I considered my situation, I might have realized that I was giving up the old blackened pot for a raging forest fire. What was that I read in some self-help book? If you feel like you’re on fire when you meet, you probably are?

Fernando joined me in the water, but we kept our distance. I wasn’t ready to slap Sam upside the head with it. I saw Sam wander up the beach into the shade with Parsley and swam to shore. Fernando bobbed beyond the breakers for a few more minutes and returned to his towel. I stretched out on my stomach after slathering myself in sunscreen and drifted into a nap.

The sun had shifted lower in the sky by the time I woke up. Fernando lay next to me, still sleeping. My skin burned a bit. I raised my head, looking for Sam and Parsley, but the palapa was empty. I flipped over and reached out to wake Fernando. Before I realized it, we embraced each other and began kissing like teenagers.Unknown

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” It was Sam crossing the sand at a near lope, Parsley happily bounding beside him.

Busted! Fernando and I flew apart and sat up. Where had Sam come from? He was spying on us, well, not hard to do—we were right out on the beach.


“You think I don’t know what you’re up to? I’ve been watching you carrying on under my nose,” he said, spittle flying from his mouth as he loomed over me, hands in fists. “I’m leaving. Get up and drive me to Oaxaca.” He turned and stormed off in the direction of my VW bus.

Sam wasn’t going to get very far unless he stole my ride, because I wasn’t about to drive the eight hours to Oaxaca with him.

!Se va! He’s leaving,” I said and grinned. I suddenly felt elated. A great weight lifted from my chest, and I threw my arms around my new novio.


Fernando and I sat on the beach for another hour. Slowly we wended our way to the señora’s compound to get cleaned up and see about dinner. My combi was right where I left it next to Gerardo’s, but Sam and Gerardo were nowhere in sight. I unlocked the combi to fix Parsley’s dinner. Sam’s suitcase was gone, but he’d left all his dirty clothes flung around the bus. While I gathered up the dinner things, Fernando wandered the compound looking for Gerardo. Eventually Gerardo appeared from the señora’s kitchen.

Hola, Gerardo. ¿Qué onda?” Fernando greeted his friend.

“You fucking slimeball,” he yelled, rushing Fernando.

“¿Qué pasó?” Fernando sidestepped the swing Gerardo took at his nose. The momentum rocked Gerardo off his trajectory and he stumbled, almost falling on his face. Fernando steadied him, but Gerardo shrugged him off.

“Her boyfriend left—took the bus back to Oaxaca. Now you’re leaving me and going with her? I saw her first.” Gerardo’s voice rose. He shrieked,”¡Ladrón! Thief.”


The men shouted at each other in rapid fire Spanish I couldn’t understand. I figured that Gerardo had a jealous hissy fit. He should have driven Sam back to Oaxaca.

We ate a silent, tense meal. After dinner, I settled down with my book and Fernando went to shmooze the señora. Peeking around the combi, I could see him gesticulating and hear angry words. It didn’t appear to be Fernando’s evening.

Soon he was back, attempting to explain that the owner was throwing us out because my husband had left and Gerardo blamed Fernando, or I think that’s what he said. It didn’t matter. We would be out of there first thing in the morning and I was probably driving back to Mexico City, about two days away. I’d better get some sleep.

I went to bed in my bus with my dog. Fernando returned to the Orange combi. In the morning, I paid the woman for our luxurious stay and packed up my gear. Fernando and Gerardo yelled at each other some more. What a mess. I didn’t know if Fernando would come with me or not, but as I made my final check that all was properly stowed and battened down, he tossed his bag into the back and slid into the driver’s seat.

“Let’s go to Huatulco.”


9. Runny Eggs Seasoned with Snipe


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.


8. I Can Really Pick ’em



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.


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.


“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.

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.”

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.


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?



I leaned into the phone booth situated near the police station in downtown Oaxaca and swiped tears and sweat off my face. The cobbles beneath my tennies felt sticky and I could barely hear the international operator. I added more coins. The line rang. And rang. 

            Then there was Sam’s voice, and I wailed, “They stole ALL my clothes, Sam. Five suitcases! All I have are my pajamas and the jeans I had on last night,”

            Pedestrians skirted the phone both, hurrying past.

            “Have you reported it to the authorities?” Sam’s calm voice grated on me.

            “Yes. They aren’t going to do anything. Six bathing suits, Sam! And the sandals I had made in Denver.” I started to cry again.

            “What do you want me to do?”

            I sniffed and wiped the back of my hand across my eyes. “I have a trunk of clothes in my storage. Get me the red sleeveless t-shirt, the peach flounced dress, my deck shoes…”

            Why would anyone break in to my bus and steal my clothes? All the stuff sold together wouldn’t be as valuable as the Honda generator, but the pendejos left that. Well, they didn’t get my computer, printer, tape deck, camera or jewelry, that was a consolation.

            “I’ll fill a suitcase for you, Ann, just pick me up next Saturday at the airport. At 4:00.”

            “I’ve lost weight, Sam. I guess I’m an eight now. Tell Mom. See you in Mexico.”

            I hung up the phone and slumped into the stone building, tears streaming off my chin. Pedestrians gave me funny looks, but none as funny as I was giving myself. I didn’t want Sam in Mexico with me! What had I done?