Saturday, January 31, 2009

Of Dogs and Men—the Flaneur’s Life

As we drift around the Sea of Cortez, La Paz seems to be our base. It is the place where family and friends come and go, where flights and buses leave; we sail in the long narrrow channel (which closes when winds are high) into the windy, current-swept harbour often, and tie up at Marina La Paz, where there are so many gringo boats there is a club house on the dock where people meet for coffee and to exchange books, DVD’s, and information every morning.  This week we are waiting for friends to arrive from Canada.

This afternoon I set off for a leisurely amble through town, with my camera. I guess you could call it a flaneur’s expedition (flaneur: An aimless idler; a loafer. French, from flâner, to idle about, stroll) settting off with no clear purpose, but to observe the goings on around me. I did mean to stop at a couple of places to photograph “death art” but other things happened on this walk, as they should to a flaneur.

First, I met a flaneuring dog—a black lab/border collie thing, I’d seen around town. He was a little scruffy and lean, but otherwise healthy, with a big white smile. He sneezed a few times to let me know he was there, took one sniff of me, decided I was a gringa and likely to be fruitful, then fell into easy step with me. At first I told him to go away “vaya, vaya”, but I think he knew it was half-hearted. If I was Mexican I would have been sensible and shouted or tossed a small rock at him. Instead, I studiously ignored him. He trotted along happily, nosing every garbage bag, investigating every food source, even the house sparrows taking dust baths around the street trees. When we passed other dogs, he looked up at me for support as if to say “I’m with her”, but ultimately, he carved a wide berth around them and eventually caught up with me again.
I said “look, we are not together. Don’t even imagine you are in my company.” I was tempted to stop at a food stand and buy him a treat but I figured that would turn him into a more aggressive mooch in the long run…But he seemed happy with our arrangement, trotting along in a gentlemanly fashion. In the same spirit as the Mexican men who occasionally take an interest in me—polite, watchful. If there’s an outside chance, que bueno, but otherwise, respectful.
I eventually lost him when I slipped into a store, where I finally did photograph what I’d set out to: the many little figures one can buy in honour of the dead. It seems that the Mexicans have a healthy relationship with death, taking pleasure in imagining all of us (from the young woman in her prime, to the dentist and gynecologist) as joyful skeletons. 
But what really caught my interest today were the walls I passed on my walk. I like old peeling walls, which show their layers—they are so much more interesting than perfect newly painted walls. Not to push the metaphor, but what do you think? A wall with a past, showing its history…just makes it more beautiful?

As the sun was setting, I stopped for a marguerita at Hotel Perla, on the waterfront. I was the only customer and the waiter was elaborate with me, to the great enjoyment of his idle colleagues. Will that be a marguerita on the rocks he asked me in Spanish. No, on the veranda I answered. Time to sign up for those Spanish lessons... 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Blog From the Sea of Cortez

In 1939, the writer John Steinbeck set off from Monterey for the Sea of Cortez on a marine collecting expedition. Seems like an unlikely activity for a fiction writer, but he had fallen under the spell of an unlikely companion, a biologist named Ed Ricketts. For two months the two of them, along with a small crew, scoured the shores and reefs of the Sea of Cortez on a sardine boat.
If you have read Cannery Row, you will know that Ed Ricketts ran a biological supply company in Monterey (the character “Doc” was modeled on him). He was a man who loved beer, women, music, and (especially) the inter-tidal world. (He wrote one of the first field guides to marine life of the North Pacific, Between Pacific Tides). 
He had the sort of fascination with hidden and inconsequential creatures that most of us lose as children, when we realize that they are not important to most adults. Studying biology can give you permission to continue to love these things and I’ve noticed that many biologists, especially the ones who still deal with animals and plants in the wild, have a child-like love of their subject.
It was this passion that seduced Steinbeck. The book he wrote about that trip, The Log From the Sea of Cortez, came out in 1941. Any edition after 1948 (when Ricketts was killed in his car at a rail crossing) includes a forward on him by Steinbeck: a funny, affectionate, and complex character sketch, which resonates with sadness.
The book is a contemplation on many things, including diesel engines, navigation, social engineering, and philosophy. Occasionally Steinbeck pauses to paint portraits of his quirky shipmates. But mostly he writes about the journey, the smells and tastes of the sea and land, and the collecting expeditions to fill jars and buckets with crabs, shrimps, nudibranchs, snails, worms...
I can’t help but compare that journey, almost exactly 70 years ago, with our own. As they set off from Monterey, Steinbeck writes about not only the material provisions (cans of peaches, crates of oranges, bottles of whiskey) for their trip but the spirit with which they set off: "We suppose this was the mental provisioning of our expedition. We said 'Let’s go wide open'.”
I think about that term mental provisioning often. Wondering what our own is. Certainly to “go wide open.” Maybe also, as Steinbeck writes “to re-align ourselves with light and tides.” Perhaps, like he and Ricketts, to “re-acquaint ourselves with laziness” as “only in laziness can one achieve a state of contemplation which is a balancing of values, a weighing of oneself against the world and the world against itself.”
But also, with a different spirit—a little sadly—to try to see things before they disappear. Part of our mental provisioning is a feeling that something is coming to an end. Not the world of course, it will go on with our without us. But rather, diversity, effortless flourishing. An end of abundance.
We haven’t seen the air bright with leaping swordfish, the great pods of dolphins and schools of tuna thrashing the water to life that Steinbeck described. Today, day after day, many of the beautiful creatures which Ed Ricketts lovingly collected on specially chosen sites and tides are dredged up by the shrimp trawlers we have seen moving like slow combines up and down the coast.
Still, taking Rickett’s cue, perhaps the secret to happiness is finding great pleasure in the small cogs of the living world, a burrowing owl fixing you with a yellow gaze, a tarantula ambling across a sandy wash, a tiny ruby-coloured hawkfish darting among the coral.
In the end Steinbeck found more than specimens on his expedition. He collected holiness in the tide pools of the Sea of Cortez:
…If one observes in the relational sense, it seems apparent that species are only commas in a sentence, that each species is at once the point and the base of a pyramid, that all life is relational to the point where an Einsteinian relativity seems to emerge. And that not only the meaning, but the feeling about species grows misty. One merges into another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air. And the units nestle into the whole and are inseparable from it. Then one can come back to the microscope and the tide pool and the aquarium. But the little animals are found to be changed, no longer set apart and alone. And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical out-crying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known as unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Great Escape

Olympic Mountains from Victoria

Many of our friends have remarked that we are so lucky to have escaped the recent frigid weather back home.

An Aside About Escape
I suspect escape through travel (or maybe any other way) is an illusion. First, it seems that my tiresome self stowed away on this voyage and brazenly struts around (knowing how impossible it would be to ship her home):
-Should I keep on colouring my hair? I mean, is there a time a woman should just go grey gracefully? Or am I too young to go grey? You know, I’m tired of all this upkeep. For that matter why not just cut it very very short. What a release that would be, so quick to dry after swimming. But then I’d have short grey hair. Oh dear, I don’t think I’m ready for that. Etc. Etc.

-Oh, maybe I should just stop trying to be a creative artist. What kind of career is that anyway? When I get back I’m going to get a real job. Etc. Etc.

Second, the expenses of life go on. Only the wind is free. Though once in awhile we can trade a T-shirt for a fish.

Meanwhile, back home snow falls and rainstorms have flooded communities, leaving city and home drains unable to keep up with the run-off.

An Aside About Plumbing:
It is hard to be happy if plumbing isn’t right. On the boat it’s pretty simple. We have two choices: we can pump into the holding tank and then try not to think about the fact that we are carrying our sewage around with us. Or we can pump overboard and try not to think about the fact we are pumping it into the sea.
In Mexican cities the smell of sewers often wafts up from the streets. I suspect very few cities have any treatment at all. Progressive plumbing is a long pipe. (For that matter sounds like Victoria).
But people seem to accept the smell as an inescapable part of life. Once, on a plane, I sat next to a man from Lima who ran a chain of hotels. He had a terrible time convincing local staff from small towns, that it was important to clean the washrooms so that they don't smell. “Why do you want to do that?” they would ask. “A kitchen should smell like a kitchen. A bathroom should smell like a bathroom.”

A few days into the New Year, we had plumbing problems of our own. First, with a septic system pump in our house on Protection Island, the other with a flooded basement in a Victorian house in James Bay, we were charmed by when our guard dropped a few years ago. A flood in November resulted in the replacement of its 100 year-old sewer line, but in January the house flooded for the second time.

And so it was that I found myself flying back over the miles we covered so slowly months ago. Which brings me to another facet of the escape illusion. That we are very far away. From the plane I could look down on the coastline of Baja, its long sweeping beaches, offshore islands, and deserted bays, and ponder that we had sailed every inch of it.
My flight times were: 1 1/2 hours from La Paz to LA, 2 hours LA to Vancouver. 2 hours from flipflops and T-shirts to coats, mitts, hats, boots…

A few days later I stood freezing as Mike from the construction company explained to me that they would have to replace the entire perimeter drainage of our quaint house (for the price it would be to rent a small villa in Italy for a year). Still I reminded myself, these are the problems of the privileged.

And there were bonuses. I got to check in with our house on Protection Island, being lovingly cared for (along with the cat) by Louise. And I got to touch base with friends who I have missed very much: Jane, Carol, Denise and Mike, Hazell, Maria, Trudy, Darcy, Jude, and Mary Jo. (Though missed Liz and Frances). Even fit in a run on my beloved Newcastle Island.

Just wish I could have left that little whinger home, but she’s leaning over me now, wheedling away about how I’m never going to finish that novel.

Back in Baja, together with the boys.  We have just visited Isla Carmen, where we walked up an arroyos thick with resin-y, thorny desert plants, and flowering shrubs that were swarming with Costa’s hummingbirds (the males sporting Shriner-purple throats).
This morning we woke at Isla Danzante, to the sound of Pelicans plunging all around the boat. The bay was full of little silver fish and schools of rays, soaring like birds, the tips of their “wings” rippling the surface.
Lindsay and a Tarantula

Monday, January 5, 2009

Monday in La Paz

Today we finally found the English bookstore (Allende Books). I bought a copy of an Isabel Allende book I have in Spanish (it took me half an hour to translate one page, so I am looking forward to having an English version on hand).
We had heard about the hairless dog of the Aztecs, so were fascinated to meet the bookseller's four month old Xoloitzcuintle (they call them squintlees sp?). They look like flying foxes and are so hot to the touch that they are recommended for people with arthritic hands .


Then I wandered over to the central plaza, across from the church to draw.

It was a quiet day, the park full of mothers and children, and idle young men. The shoe shine stands were empty....

I drew quick portraits of these two children and they decided they wanted to paint too.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Espiritu Santo

An island called holy spirit is probably an auspicious place to spend Christmas. (Though, if you're more secular, Kim offers his own translation: spirit of Santa island). It lies just over ten miles from La Paz, but it feels a world away. The water is so clear you can see all the way down to the anchor. Pufferfish flutter lazily along the hull; brilliant blue King Angelfish poke around coral heads and where the water shallows over bone white sand, pelicans and terns hover over tinsel rivers of schooling mullet.

The land is vivid: red, ochre, chocolate brown; dry and crumbling, studded with thorny shrubs and cardon cacti.
Circadia, filled to the brim with people, food, and drink, wallowed gently from anchorage to anchorage. Along with Kim and I, Lindsay and Sophie, we had our good friend Trudy on board as well as old friends from Portland Oregon. An especially wonderful part of the holiday was having the children (Heather, Claire, and Hannah) of these friends along (who we have known since they were babies). It is one of the under-rated delights of this stage of life--we get to discover the adults all the kids have turned into. Along with Stuart, Sophie's friend, they were superb companions: curious, intelligent, thoughtful and a lot of fun.


On Christmas Day, Trudy, a friend Derek, Heather and our family hiked to a ridge top to watch the sunset. We celebrated New Years (with the Portland gang) with a bioluminescent swim under a brilliant starry sky.

The days melted away as we drifted between swims and snorkels, beach walks, kayaking, and swinging in the hammock.
Hannah and Claire


And now the journeys home begin. The flight back to Portland left yesterday. We just put Sophie in a taxi for the airport, (a tough one, as we won't see her now until summer). Lindsay just finished his degree, so we get to keep him for awhile. He heads back to Victoria in late January.
It was a Christmas season we will remember for a long time, though we never forget, in the midst of these exotic waters, that our hearts' home is on our (snowbound!) island, and among the friends we won't see for many months. We wish all good things to you in the year to come...Alison

Kim, Stuart, Sophie, Alison, Lindsay, Charlie, Claire, Hannah, Terri