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Published: August 7th 2008
Chilling in Cabo
Betty and Ely on the veranda
Up until now, I belived there was only three options when it came to travel.
1) Tour groups 2) Backpacking 3) Resort dweller
I hate all three. Okay, hate is a harsh word. How about dislike. I dislike all three.
Why you ask?
Well, tour groups actually terrify me. The thought of paying extravagant amounts of money to be stuck with a bunch of people I don't know...all complaining about the food, the heat & humidity or the taxi drivers lack of skill literally turns my stomach.
Backpackers I actually secretly envy. However I'm too set in my ways to sleep upright in an old dilapidated school bus as it bounces along a dusty back road, or stay in party-wild hostels wearing seawater-stiff t-shirts and dirty flip flops for days on end.
Being trapped at a fancy resort with a bunch of fellow Canadians sunning ourselves and finding excuses to start drinking copious amounts of booze at ten o'clock in the morning is definately not my cup of tea either.
I want to experience 'real' travel.
So, I came up with my own 'real' travel criteria. First, I had to travel alone, second,
Pangas on the malecon
Ricardo's panga baking in the midday sun....
I had to survive it, and thirdly, I had to learn something.
I figured Mexico would be a good place to start. I have a passion for Mexico. I love the culture and the people, and it was an easy decision to immerse myself deep within. I signed up to attend a spanish language school called Se Habla La Paz, and as part of the deal, I would live with a local family in the city of La Paz (means 'the Peace'😉. The name itself suggests tranquility. A good sign, no?
I've been traveling through Mexico for over 30 years now, but La Paz still remains to be my favorite dusty jewel in the heart of Baja country. It is enchanting and real. It is also noisy and chaotic, and sticky dirty. It's Mexico. If someone were to ask me to describe Mexico by smell alone, I would probably say a combination of burning leaves and diesel fumes....with a hint of tortillas frying in oil. I know, not a flattering description, but for those who have visited Mexico before, you know it's true.
Arriving in "the Peace" early one afternoon, it is nothing but.
My little casita with fresh grapefruits hanging right outside the door...
(C) degrees, I have hit the midday rush - and while idling through the endless fourway altos (which no one appears to heed to) to get to the old downtown area, I'm already stressed out due by my earlier involuntarily participation in a spontaneous Indi-500, not to mention witnessing a dog getting run over and dragged yipping for several blocks. Ugh.
The drive to La Paz is about four hours north from San Jose del Cabo, everyone on the Baja drives like a maniac, and since there isn't really any option to pull off the highway to let them by, you either conform or die. Conforming takes a lot of energy, especially without air conditioning. I amaze myself that I have already consumed four bottles of water and not peed yet.
Armed with my fancy directions to find my sponsor family's home, all I know is I have to find the only McDonalds in town, take a left after two blocks with the Pemex gas station on the left, but take the right, loop around and find a little house with an empty lot beside it. Finding a house by usual street sign is not an easy task
The La Paz Malecon is a great place to people watch and enjoy a helado (icecream)
in Mexico. Most signs are either hurricane lost, sun-scalded beyond recognition, or never there in the first place. Despite this obvious detriment, and a few crazy car-chasing dogs, I locate my little home away from home.
Hurrah. A small victory for me.
I park 'Miss Vickie' (our family's ugly brown Crown Victoria with the one hubcab missing) on the narrow curb and lug all my belongings up to the white gate to push the rusted buzzer. No response. I press harder. Nothing. It is now 43 degrees...and I know this only because it is the exact temperature of my body's melting point. I will be a puddle of goo if I do no find shade pronto.
I make the executive decision to venture onto the compound, I can see the front door directly ahead up the stone pathway...which is curiously decorated with old toilet tanks made into flower boxes. Intriging? Crazy brickwork and narrow alleyways make up the rest of the compound. Some old iron furniture haphazardly painted white occupies the front veranda.
I knock at the heavy wooden door and some yappy dogs come alive from behind it. Nothing. Pulling out my cell phone, I
Gloria and a cousin cooking up a storm...
decide to try to telephone number I was given to see if I at least have the right house. I hear a phone ring deep in the house and the dogs go ballistic again. It's the right house. I decide to wait.
Turns out, the veranda is a lovely cool spot to sit and wait. With my fifth bottle of water drained, I'm rocking back and forth on the surprisingly comfortable iron chair, thumbing through a book, enjoying the deep shade of the lime trees. The traffic is franticly trying to get home for the midday meal and siesta.
Where is my host family?
I look up and see a woman peeking at me from the side of the house. She greets me and takes a seat. I greet back. She starts to babble on in Spanish, and I have to stop her mid sentence to ask if she knows English. She says no. In my best 'Spanglish'
I ask if she is Gloria, she says no. I ask her if she knows where Gloria is. She says no. I ask if she lives here. She says no. She is Betty. I am Andrea. I ask her
The Indi 500
Driving in big sky country
if she knows why I'm here. She tells me she doesn't understand my question. I ask her if she knows where my room is. She says she doesn't understand my question. We stare at each other politely. The sudden silence in this heat wave would normally grate on my nerves, but Betty is rocking with me and its okay. Then another face appears. We go through the same strange conversation. This is Ely. She is about 14, and is more interested in her cell phone than me. She takes a seat with us too. We all rock. I pass out gum.
Finally, a matronly woman with a bad lipstick appliqué and grocery bags shuffles in and there are kisses and conversation and apologies. She is Gloria and she is late. She's sorry, so sorry. She bustles me away for the grand tour of her casa, which consists of a modest kitchen, a small sitting parlour painted in a multitude of wildly bright colours and dusty bookshelves, we wander down the dark cool halls to the back, scruffy dogs dance at our feet, into a heavily treed courtyard with my own little casita tucked way away amongst the others. A
Kayaking the calm waters near Balandra Playa...
turn of the key in the metal screen reveals a small sparsely furnished room with day bed, desk, and a little bathroom off to the side complete with shower stall. I'm pleasantly relieved. For about $70 a week with meals included, it's private and perfect. She tells me 'Mi Casa es Su Casa'. I know that phrase well. My home is your home.
I'm already relishing this experience.
Each morning, I find Gloria in her kitchen working frantically. She tells me bits of her life story in simple Spanish while she serves up fresh squeezed juice and coffee, tropical fruits, and my choice of refried beans and rice, or a heavy pastry from the local bakery. She waves absentmindedly at the flies as she explains there is no refrigeration and therefore do I mind to take my coffee solo (black). Several new faces pop in and out of the kitchen every few minutes and I am hastily introduced to each one of them. I'm confused, but do not question the frenzied mob with fear of slowing them down. It turns out Gloria runs a boarding house to earn extra income. She also serves breakfast for a fee. Various
Break time at Se Habla
Juli served up some lovely snacks for us...yum!
strangers rush in and out, mornings here in Mexico are not leisurely.
I find my own way to school each morning through the hectic traffic and endless four altos to attend classes between 8 am and 11 am and then again from 11:30 to 1pm. The school is an old mansion painted salmon pink with blue trim. Juli Goff, the owner greets her charges like Mr. Rourke, making me feel immediately at ease. The school is a maze of rooms, up and down, with nice little breezy sitting areas throughout. I fashion myself near the courtyard pool, to take in the surrounding gardens, while an echo of foreign chatter comes from deep within the house.
The classes are gruelling but fun, my teacher, Cynthia speaks about as much English as I do Spanish. But we make it work. She uses an electronic translator when we get stuck on a word. She is enthusiastic and tolerant, and she makes the learning effortless.
At first, I feel like I haven't learned a thing - and my head aches with confusion, but slowly and without really thinking about it, I find myself rambling off entire sentences in Spanish. During the
Two of the teenagers Ely and Ricardo Jr.
class break, a modest snack is presented, quesadillas or a fancy loaf bread. There are people from all over the world here, all different ages and genders. We all nervously chat in Spanish, and then revert to English when the teachers aren't looking.
Several of us students immediately start to make plans for our evenings and weekends. La Paz is a working city, but there are lots of things to see and do here. Most of us meet up after school to go off on hiking trips, or over to beaches to swim and snorkel, we go out dancing and drinking at several of the bars along the Malecon, and plan various kayaking trips at many of the bays east of the Pichilingue ferry terminal.
Meanwhile, my homestay mother Gloria makes sure I am fully immersed in the mexican culture. I attend church mass with her, go to the various shops to buy meat and vegetables, as well as accompany her to various family functions i.e. a baby shower for a neighbour, a sweet 15 party for a 3rd cousin once removed, and go to the Zocolo to watch a marachi band practice on a cool, breezy evening.
crystal clear bathtub water
so very nice sand and water to swim.... sea of cortez
When not out socializing, Gloria and I watch spanish soap operas on her scratchy TV and chat.
I learn very quickly that here in Mexico, 'la comida' (the main meal of the day) is at 2 pm sharp and you must NEVER miss it. Each day, I race back to my homestay in the sweltering heat to find the whole household converging around the large wooden table in the formal dining room. I sit quietly for the first few days, trying not to look horrified, listening exhaustingly to the endless banter. Mass amounts of food are consumed. As the week wears on I find myself joining in. I tease the aunties and cousins. I make faces at the teenagers using the word 'guacala' (gross) for their amusement. We look at photo albums. Betty announces she is leaving for Loreto and kisses me goodbye like I've been here forever (she was only visiting her teen daughter Ely because there is no high school in the town they are from). Now she must return for work and to care for her other children. She entrusts Gloria with keeping a serious eye out. Ricardo, the chain-smoking fisherman sleeps all day and takes his old panga boat out at night to catch squid, his two sons, Ricardo Jr. and Luis, both pimply faced teens begrudgingly help, and attend school during the evenings.
Gloria cooks all day to serve up the most delicious meals for us. She stuffs peppers, she makes thick saucy moles, rice, beans and tortillas from scratch, salad greens with lime dressing and cilantro, and plenty of refreshing lemonade from the lime trees. No ice, but that's okay. Occasionally I get sight of a mysterious man from Paris renting a room as he lurks in an out from the dark cavern of the hallway, but he's not social and I have a hard time understanding his Spanish with the thick French accent.
After each 'la comida' the pace suddenly slows...and those who do not retreat to their casita for a siesta, brave the blistering heat of the afternoon under the thick shade of the limes, rocking and chatting. A light breeze drifts through the compound effortlessly, and I suddenly realize all the crazy brickwork and narrow alleyways are purposely designed to facilitate this.
I do what the locals do and chill.
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