La Vida Mexico

…At The Inn At San Pancho

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The Heart Of Darkness

The Heart of Darkness
He was young, the man sitting beside me on flight 821, perhaps 20, an awkward age, neither here nor there, confusing and perilous. This particular specimen was covered with piercings and tattoos. I do not use the word covered loosely. He dripped metal, shards of shrapnel hanging from eyebrows and nose and cheeks and lips. Kissing him would require true love or a gun to the head.

Black tear drops fell from his eyes – a sign of what? – sadness, incompletion, insanity.  The arms and hands – each knuckle a different letter, impossible to read because he talked with them to the young woman beside him who had managed to Zulu her ears.* In addition to this distortion she too had a fair amount of tats, particularly around the neck. In all other ways she seemed as normal as most serial killers. There were snakes and exotic flowers and vines twisting round and round the boyfriend’s arms, a heart or two, a woman’s face, a hand.  Jesus lord, none of it made any sense. The powerlessness of addiction can be a frightening thing to behold, particularly if you have a limited amount of space, i.e. having only the one body to work your stuff out on. Enter Zulu — a blank canvas of a co-dependent, a giggler of all things, light to his dark, joy to his confusion.

The guy’s graffiti was more like a swarm than a masterpiece. I could see little cohesion in the mishmash of images and words, but the globs of green and the snake and the vines indicated a Heart of Darkness theme. If he were a wall or a subway car, he would be close to the limit. I wondered what lay beneath his jeans, his black t-shirt. No underwear, I was sure. He was tall, thin, not particularly well built, even a bit gawky.
For a while, I lost skin contact when he started snuggling with Zulu. He had that gruff sort of male sarcasm young men fall into when they are feeling awkward. Joke love. Oddly sweet. Human. Who is this guy, I think, returning to the safety of the Kindle where words know their place. What would I write on myself. What image is important enough to surrender a piece my flesh to.

Strange phrases emerge conversations: A duck landed on the pool, I got sunburned at that funeral, Great report card, Happy Birthday, Ticket to Ride, One Day At A Time, The Silence Between The Notes. Would I like a butterfly at the tip of my spine, a parrot on the back of my neck, a son’s name on each ankle? Shall I name my husbands, list them in small letters on an upper thigh with start and end dates. But more than the WHAT  is the WHY? Why do people tattoo themselves? For attention? For Identity? For a Cause? For Love? Rage? Fear?

It was difficult to concentrate on Elizabeth Strout’s new novel with all the action going on beside me. I managed a page or two and then a woman, younger than me but still old, with that crimped gray permed hair thing going on, overweight, in a yellow t-shirt.

“How are you two doing on the custom forms?”

The couple emerged from their huddle.

“Okay,” the girl said merrily. Yes, merrily. Sorry, but this Zulu girl was one happy, merry stretched lobe sort of kid.

“Sure you don’t need any help?”

“We’re good mom,” he says.

Mom? Mom?

“Okay, Dad and I are back there if you need us.”

“My soon to be mother in law,” he says to me. “We are going to Vallarta to check it out for our honeymoon.”

Flight Zone Mode has been pierced. The door is open. I step through.

“It is a great place for a honeymoon,” I say. “Very romantic.”

“My first time out of the country,” he says. “I’m nervous. All that drug stuff going on.”

Zulu giggles.

“Perfectly safe where we’re going,” I say, and explain about the cartels killing each other off in places to the north and south of Vallarta.

“Yeah, but look at me.”

And this is the first time I do look at him full face, full body, neck, arms, hands, face, knuckles, fingers, ears, the whole disaster of him

“You’ll be fine,” I say, knowing if I was a customs agent, I would drag him off to the nearest holding cell.

“You think? I mean they might think I have drugs.”

“They are not worried about you bringing drugs in,” I explain. “They are looking for things they can put duty on, like electronics you might try to see, or fruits and vegetables. They’re very concerned about fruits and vegetables for some reason. I was pulled to the side once because of a black banana I’d  forgotten to eat. You have any of that stuffed in your luggage.”


“Then you’re good to go.

No worries.”

The three of us, begin to chat. They sound eerily normally compared to how they look. He — no surprise —  is a tattoo artist by trade and she is his best customer, his muse-model.

As we are landing, his one hand holding hers, his other gripping the armrest (“I hate flying”), I see a short line of print at the edge of his t-shirt sleeve:
Truth Intimidates.

You can see me there in a pair of khakis with my flip flops off, a loose blue blouse, no makeup – plane-weary and wrinkled and suddenly aware of all that I do not know. Some flights are better than others.

*Earlobe stretching or ear gouging as well as implanting horns on your head and hanging by hooks in your flesh from great heights are both extensions of tattooing —  a darker attempt at pushing the edge of identity. A sacrifice of self to become more defined.  For more inform, check out How To Stretch an Ear Lobe in 8 simple steps on WikiHow.



Two Homes, One Heart

When you live in two different countries, you either discover a knack for leaving or decide to stay put in one or the other.  Forget life coaches and self help books. You cannot learn how to turn off one life and turn on another as simply as that. You need to live through the experience over a course of time, strengthening emotional muscles and developing the patience for processing relationships.  In other words, you have to become less self-centered, less dependent on others, and more open minded. Mostly, you need to explore the idea of consciously creating your own and respecting the boundaries of others.

Imagine this: you board a plane with your freshly minted immigration card, and three hours and 1,000 miles later you are reading Splat the Cat and kissing a sweaty cheek which seems fuller than it was eight months before. The kids are taller, sassier, and do not have pjs with slippers built in. You will not have to change diapers this trip, or ever again. This makes you surprisingly sad. The last first day in kindergarten is three months away. There are no strollers in the garage, and all your grandchildren can roll their eyes, wink and count to 100. You are turning 70, and a decade of little hands reaching for yours in parking lots and crossing streets will be over by the next time you visit.

In three hours you go from managing a staff and welcoming guests at the Inn at San Pancho to reading bedtime stories and playing Shark in the pool. Even your language has changed from Spanish to English. You find yourself ordering coka lite and saying Hola and si and como estas.

Slipping in and out of lives is not at all like you imagined. In the beginning, it was wrenching. Goodbye, hello, goodbye, hello. When will I see you again? I miss you. I miss the kids. I miss the supermarket. I miss my house. I miss my cat. I miss my friends. The language of this life is heavy handed and there are days when you get teary eyed thinking of missed dance recitals and early mornings on the beach and watching movies with grandkids whispering in your ear. There are the dinners with your sons, the talks over mugs of tea with your daughters in law. And then there is Silvia, waking you each morning, going over which of the casitas needs new sheets, which tubs of laundry she should do first, whether or not next week’s guests will need an extra bed, the crib, a welcoming night dinner. There are so many people splashing in the pool of your life – a life which drifts like the sea back and forth, a tidal pool ever refreshing and new.

Eight years into shifting lives, I have come to treat departures and arrivals with less drama. It is time to leave, time to arrive. The reservations are made, the dates set. The angst is gone. The difference today, eight years after I moved to San Pancho,  is that I bring myself – the same self —  wherever I go. Schedules change and there may be more or less down time, longer days, shorter nights, less reading, more playing. But the me, the essential Eileen is all of a piece. I know that bringing love, I will receive it in return.  On the eve of my 70th birthday, I have come to believe that these later years are rather the best. Has life always been so generous, or am I just beginning to realize its vast dimensions now? Oh, dear, I am coming late to the real party, letting myself slide into the days, the changes, the arrivals and the departures as a whole person seeing life as a whole – a person who has enough of everything she needs to go on, comforting and comforted, deliciously, extravagantly alive. 

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An expat recently told me about a man in San Pancho who has watched “Every single sunset since he moved here.” 

San Pancho being a small village, I chose to say something kinder than “He’s lying,” but harsher than, “Really, is that possible?”

“He’s counting?” I finally asked.

I need to add a little perspective here. I love sunsets. I have loved them from the time I was a little kid. I loved them on every single vacation I ever took.  I did not bother with them much in my real life. I did not rush to the window to watch the sun set over my Hicksville, Long Island neighborhood or from the Berkshire river valley where I lived for the last 30 years.  Sunset watching takes time and location and, frankly, sun, which is rare in the northeast.

Of course, everything, including sunsets, changed when I moved to Mexico. Because the Inn at San Pancho sits on top of a hill overlooking the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, I can, with the exception of the bathroom, watch sunsets from every room in my small house. I watch them while I am reading and writing and peeling potatoes or floating in the pool or sitting on the beach. They are woven into my life and when I go north for the summer I miss them almost as much as I miss my friends and my cat.

Sunsets are like snowflakes and fingerprints – each one unique in its own one-time-only way. Some are quite ordinary, others biblical. Not every sunset  is a Tarantino.  There are sunsets when the sun is significantly larger than usual and you might almost believe something is seriously wrong with the universe. On other occasions the sun simply sets, no big deal. On those evenings, if you are not in the business of collecting them, you might skip the whole show and watch the news or make a salad for dinner.

And then there is The Green Flash phenomenon which I passionately pursued in every end-of-the-dock bar from St. Martins to Key West.  But it was not until I moved to Mexico that I finally had my first Green Flash moment.

“Green Flash this evening,” my neighbor said in the middle of a conversation about the more than 400 varieties of palm trees I could choose from when I was ready to start landscaping.  We were on the veranda at the time and the sun was free falling, picking up speed as it neared the surface of the sea splayed out before us.  

 “Really? How can you tell?”

“I’ve watched so many of them I pretty much know when it’s going to happen.”

“My God, I’m going to see The Green Flash.”

“Yes, I am pretty sure you are. They happen all the time down here. Watch, there it goes…”

The sun was a robust orange, rowdy and full of fire, as it slid into the Pacific. There was not a cloud in the sky.

”Yes! There!” he shouted. “Did you see it?”

“I saw something, like a green pulse and then it was gone. I must have looked away for an instant.”

“No…no….that was it.”

That  was The Green Flash.”

He nodded. “Yup.”

“Tell me it’s not always like that. Tell me this was a below average Green Flash.”

“No, that’s mas o menos how it always is.”

For all people who have yet to see a Green Flash, who are actually standing on beaches and mountaintops around the world, waiting to see it, you are wasting your time. The Green Flash is not a flash, nor is it a streak of green lightening shattering the sky. It is so nothing that it is difficult to describe. It is perhaps the color of a half ripened lime and visible for a microsecond. That is it. This is the truth.

Like the man who counts sunsets, the man who puts a notch on his Ray Bans every time he witnesses a green flash is not so much watching as he collecting.

When I came to Mexico it was difficult not to pick every beautiful flower I saw.  If it was yellow I saw it in the kitchen, a spray of red bougainvillea in the living room, a lily for the bedroom. There was such an abundance of flowers – all so exotic. I wanted them in my house, in my garden. But there are only so many vases, so many square meters of soil in which to plant.

I moved into the Inn at San Pancho, and each night as I watched the sunset  I reminded myself that whatever had gone wrong  during the day – and something always went wrong – it paled in comparison to the rage of orange and pink and red swirling across the horizon. Each night I took a photo of the sunset, capturing it as I had earlier plucked the flowers. I did not want either to slip through my fingers as I believed so much else in my life already had.

I cannot pinpoint when I stopped collecting flowers and sunsets as if my world was going to run out of them. I only became aware of not having done so for a long time a couple of years ago when I was with a group of friends from the states eating burritos at my favorite beach restaurant, La Playa. I was watching what was turning into a spectacular sunset and about to announce the possibility of there being a green flash, when the woman next to me tapped me on the arm.

“Look, look at this,” she said, holding the screen of her IPhone up. The sun was doing stuff with the clouds and the whole horizon was changing colors from one moment to the next but I turned to look at the camera anyway. It was a very good photo of exactly what was going on the second before I turned away from reality to look at the image. She had caught the sunset perfectly, right down to the salmon colored sea. “Great shot,” I said and turned my face back toward the sunset just in time to see a tiny green spark disappearing beneath the sea.

Life is contrary and unexpected.  The chances of anyone managing to catch every sunset are relatively thin. One would have to set their minds to it, as you would to any challenge. One would have to rush home from Costco or a friend’s house, leave the pots simmering on the stove, the laundry to wrinkle in the dryer, the phone to go unanswered. One would have to tell the plumber he could come back tomorrow to fix the leak, and the cats could wait to be fed, the dog to be walked because THE SUN WAS SETTING AND THERE COULD BE A GREEN FLASH! For some of us that is simply too big of a commitment.
Sunsets are not collectibles …they are not coins or stamps and you cannot hang them on your walls or keep them in a safe deposit box. They are the gift which reminds us on a daily basis that we are part of something too vast to contemplate.

10 Tips On How To Watch A Sunset

  1. Don’t get there too early. Arriving 15 to 20 minutes before the show is time enough.
  2. Wear sunglasses
  3. Bring insect repellent – you are not the only sentient being waiting for the sun to go down
  4. Watch it alone
  5. Watch it with friends
  6. Don’t brag about the sunset; it is not yours just because you watched it
  7. Bring a camera but limit yourself to how many photos you are willing to take; otherwise you will miss the real sunset
  8. Do not expect to see a Green Flash – you are liable to be disappointed even if you do see one.
  9. Send up a prayer, a hope, a message, a thank you
  10. When there are clouds in the sky, the sunset might only be a preview of the show to come. Be patient. Don’t leave before the miracle.