02 April 2019

Jenny Doesn't Get It

Howlin Wolf whistles and catcalls that need no translation, familiar faces in oversized sombreros, Starbucks, McDonald’s, neon margaritas and fuzzy memories of Señor Frogs; this is the México my sister knows—the México she cannot shake. That’s my fault. I’ve been defending Puerto Escondido, telling her what it’s not, rather than telling her what it is. I need to remedy that. I suppose I could call her but where is the fun in that? Jenny, My doubtful baby sister. Do you remember when you were the happiest in life? I’m not talking about a momentary spike. I’m talking about a steady buzz of damn this is good. A couple of years ago, I gave that question a lot of thought. I was between things at the time and determined not to rush what comes next. My thoughts kept returning to the years I lived in small-town Thailand. I had stumbled onto a magic formula back then. The intrigues of a foreign culture, tourism but not too much, a low cost of living and local travel destinations in every direction. It wasn’t a matter of going back. Happiness was forward. I was convinced that damn this is good wasn’t confined to a specific place or time. It was recreatable, improvable—a steady buzz tuned to jazz. So, I went looking for Puerto Escondido. Coincidentally I started in México. I wasn’t following my gut or bucket-listing, it just happened to be the cheapest place to land. I immediately felt at ease, even in the madness of México City. There was a familiarity to México, California whispers, and yet so much to learn and so much to see. I had intended to breeze through, ten days, two weeks at most, I stayed for almost two months.
The State of Oaxaca, in particular, nearly made me hang up my backpack. The city of Oaxaca is an incredible cultural center; art, music, theatre, colonial architecture and the remains of once flourishing indigenous centers. Oh, and it’s mezcal country! From there you can follow winding mountain roads to the Pacific Coast where you’ll find quirky Puerto Escondido fringed by miles and miles of unspoiled paradise. By the time I got to Puerto I was already in love with the region. It ticked all the boxes. But, I wasn’t ready to hang up a hammock and call it a new life. I had planned for long and epic. I had to find out if even better was somewhere on the road ahead. It wasn’t. I went all the way to the tip of South America and spent the whole time looking back, dreaming about Oaxaca and those perfect little towns along the coast. Carrizalillo is my neighborhood beach. I live a block away. There are a hundred and seventy steps winding down the cliffside but its step forty-five that really matters. That’s when Carrizalillo reveals itself, unobstructed and time-stop perfect. I won’t bother with golden sand descriptions and don’t you dare look a picture and assume that get it. You don’t. You have to feel the stone steps beneath your feet. You have to feel all your grown-up bullshit fall away as you resist the urge to run the rest of the way down.
Here is why Carrizalillo matters to this story. Despite all my prepping and poetic prognosticating, I was nervous. I had flashed through Puerto. I had no clue what the realities of living here would be. I wandered through the neighborhoods looking for what I had been imagining. Rinconada was my last stop; a quiet out of the way area with a raved about beach. When my feet hit that forty-fifth step relief nearly buckled me. I thought, if I’m not happy living here, I’ll never be happy anywhere. Mom and dad came to visit a few months after I arrived. I looked settled. I wasn’t. If anything I was too preoccupied with the logistics; head down, paradise passing me by. I welcomed the break and the opportunity to play tourist in my new hometown. There are a hundred stories I could tell from that trip but the one that stands out most is the time you won Christmas. Remember? You sent me cash and said, “Do something fun, I trust you.”
I took them deep-sea fishing. We pushed off at 6am. The boat captain was a local dude who has been fishing these waters for more than thirty years and clearly hasn’t lost a drop of joy. In the breaking morning light we absently observed Puerto Escondido stretching and yawning; surfers and pelicans bobbing on glassy golden waves, kids fishing from the rocks with nothing but string, umbrellas being opened, sand being swept—life rarely seen in the moments before buenos dias. The first couple of hours were nothing but light breeze and deep blue. The boat captain looked nervous. He kept his eyes pinned on the horizon and stayed in constant communication with the other captains. He was looking for a sign, but what? “We have to find the dolphins,” he said. “They’re hunters. If we find the dolphins, we’ll find the tuna.” Suddenly, he spotted something in the distance. He yelped with joy and gunned it. The lancha ripped across the smooth sea. In the distance we could see a group of fishing boats moving quickly southward. The water behind them was a churning boil that seemed to be chasing them down. A spinner dolphin leapt skyward, perfectly vertical, turning 360° and splashing down. We raced ahead, joining the other boats. That’s when we saw the whole menagerie. Dart-quick yellowfin tuna trapped between the fishing boats and separate schools of dolphins; bottlenose dolphins having joined the spinners. It was an unreal scene. Even the captain was shocked by the sheer numbers. We couldn’t look anywhere without missing something unmissable. Imagine mom with her camera, bouncing from one side of the boat to the other, screaming that happy, Can you believe it! scream of hers. Imagine dad intensely watching the tuna shimmer and submerge: Give me a chance, Captain! Just give me a chance! Little sister, I am telling you, you’ve never seen them float like that. They kept reaching out, making contact, unable to believe that any of it was real without confirmation of each other.
We quickly hooked three fat yellowfin, far more than we could eat or than I could fit in my freezer. We didn’t want the moment to end but we knew that it was time. The captain called up a local restaurant and when the boat glided onto the sand a lady with butcher knives in the pockets of her apron was already waiting for us. Sassy as could be, she sashayed us to an ocean view table beneath the palms. We sipped cervezas while she cut the tuna into three-inch ruby red steaks. We gorged ourselves until a siesta became mandatory. On the way out, mom and dad gave everyone on the staff a tuna steak tip. “Gracias! Gracias! We had such a wonderful day!” they told their grateful but slightly bewildered recipients. Travel has been an inspiration for mom and dad. It’s got them daydreaming beyond California and the statelines of the West. They have R.V. plans and months abroad plans. They are reimagining someday and I couldn’t be happier. You’ve always been a someday girl. It’s where you go to escape and when your day-to-day squeezes too tightly, it’s someday that shoves it away. We’ve talked about the broad strokes of what could be but never the imagined details. I wonder if you’ve even allowed yourself to daydream that deeply. I wonder if the thought of 10am on a way off Monday feels like a wasted escape, or worse, a betrayal of the goodness you already have. It’s not, kid. We’re all chasing life with a lot less squeeze and here in Puerto Escondido that’s just the way life is.
I want you to visit, but more importantly, I want you live here—just for a moment. I want you to sink into my day-to-day. Spend your mornings sipping coffee in a hammock and floating in the sea. Eat street tacos and high-end Oaxacan cuisine. Pack a bottle of wine and find a sunset spot all your own. Hop on a motorcycle and drive up the coast to Chacahua or down to Mazunte. Discover how easy it is to live differently. Freedom of time isn’t about filling the space responsibility left behind, it’s about finding your own rhythm. I don’t know what rhythm you’ll settle into or where curiosity will take you but I do know this; Puerto Escondido will help you imagine 10am on a way off Monday, it will add memory and tangibility to the daydream. Close your eyes. Inhale. Exhale. Shake it off. México is not the México that you know. Puerto is my new damn this is good. You and I are trouble at home, imagine us abroad.
Still not convinced? Fine, I’ll say it the way you’d say it, “Oh, get over yourself and get your ass down here!” See ya soon, MB P.S. I have it on good authority that Señor Frog passed quietly in his sleep.


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