Friday, April 29, 2011

Safety second or third, driving in La Paz, Mexico

     I admire people who drive with skill equal to Mad Max. Driving in La Paz is the best of Road Warrior on an average day. I thought Mexican bus drivers deserved special recognition for outrageous maneuvers in moving vehicles, until I rode with the Doctor. He owns hotel Yeneka, my favorite place to stay in La Paz. The first time was just a boring errand to pick up my bags from the boat. Rich wasn’t impressed with the hotel though, he said “Yeah, if you like staying in Sanford and Sons,” when I brought him by to see the place, but to each his own. Tripadvisor doesn’t have a box to check for artistic merit or outrageous characters when rating a hotel. If you prefer life outside the box; my score for Yeneka is a solid ten in both regards.
     On the way to pick up my bags we rode in a small car that I would never guess could accelerate beyond common sense in one short city block, the speed limit being; as fast as you can possibly go. The windshield was dusty, which helped cut the glare of the midday sun, which lit up cracks in the glass like dew on a spider web. The Doctor didn’t bother to shift gears until the racing engine backfired. I didn’t know it was possible to downshift while still accelerating, but he did it with such skill that the car slowed slightly for oncoming traffic at intersections without standing on end or turning the transmission into jewelry pieces. Another rule of the road is that the first car to cut another car off has the right of way. Aggression in high volume is required. The other car might have to slide into a controlled skid, but that’s what brakes are for. I can’t remember if the Doctor ever used his. I’m convinced you have to be born a Mexican male to know a compact car’s threshold for maximum compression, just short of blowing a head gasket. Machismo is the word for not giving a shit if you do punch a rod through the engine block. We picked up my stuff and were back at the hotel in less time that it would take to hail a cab.
     A few weeks later I moved off Si Bon, back to the hotel. Rich dropped me off in a rental car and stupidly I left my computer bag on the back seat. He called the hotel from the airport. Raul, the manager of the hotel who is known for getting things done, called the Doctor who was luckily not far away. He roared up to get me in a jacked Izuzu Trooper with mega off road tires. Painted on the side; “La Mula del Diablo”, (the devil’s mule) and a silhouette of a naked couples in wild embrace. I climbed in and he launched forward into traffic to get to the airport before Rich boarded his plane. I don’t know if there’s a word for standing on the gas and the brakes at the same time, but the effect of gunning the engine at a full stop turned the truck into a bucking bronco prodded by a blow torch. The cars in front of us instantly moved over when the traffic started up. Curbs are designed for low slung compact cars; driving over them felt like cracks in the pavement. I checked my watch, no worries. An airport sign blew by and then the road was suddenly choked with cars. We’d have to wait through a few lights, or so I thought. The truck veered into the dirt emergency lane without slowing down, passing between the lanes of idling cars inches from a hot dog vendor. He angled into the cross walk ahead of the other cars and hit the brakes, then grinned. “In Mexico, the biggest truck goes first,” he said, leaving a cloud of dust in the intersection. With no cars in front of us, acceleration didn’t end until the turn off for the airport materialized, which seemed like seconds. Rich was waiting with my computer and, duh, there was plenty of time to spare. The ride back was fairly low key, more like an average car race, rather than a race car driver with a mission.
       Today stepped things up a notch. I rode along to drop hotel guests off at remote beach over the top of a mountain. Up one side and straight down the other. If the roads in town are not well maintained, the dirt roads in the dessert redefine off road. It hasn’t rained in La Paz for over a year and a half, which makes dust the new fog. Drive slowly and the particle cloud generated by big ass tires catches up with you. Just to say, it never did since the truck didn’t exactly slow down, ever. The girl in the back started laughing when she found herself airborne, which was a good thing since the other option was abject terror. I wore my seatbelt, although it nearly decapitated me when we bounced through giant ruts. I tried to hold my camera up, but it bashed me in the head. Peals of laughter continued from the back seat as we topped the mountain and rocketed downhill toward the beach, hanging on to keep from bouncing out a window. I got out to take photos of the truck lunging down the road and only then did it seem utterly impossible that we’d made it that far. Inside the truck the overwrought suspension complained like a badly maintained carnival ride. Outside, rocks tortured under the tires sounded like madmen hurling beer bottles at glass doors. The gear shift cover was long gone, the road visible through the floor.
     We left the couple at the beach to be picked up later and I thought the ride was over. Not quite. We hadn’t actually gone down the steepest road to a rocky beach where the Doctor balanced the truck on three boulders. I didn’t bother wearing the seat belt after the first free fall downhill. It really felt safer to leave it off. The choice was neck burns for sure or slow, inevitable death if the truck plunged off the road and rolled fifty times into the canyon below. A quicker death seemed the better choice. Driving back into town was a weird re-entry. The usual traffic seemed downright tame. When we arrived at the hotel the mechanic who was standing by crawled under the truck with his tools. I assume that’s simply routine after a little drive in the country.                 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Catch of the day

     This week my friend Rich arrived, he’s crewed on Si Bon before and he managed to break the losing fishing streak this boat has been on since leaving San Diego months ago. Since he’s done a lot of sport fishing he pretty much had to catch fish or lose face. When he hooked his first fish, I climbed onto the swim step to kill it. When I sailed to the South Pacific many years ago, and actually caught some fish, I was taught a humane way to kill them from my friend Ann. Alcohol is extremely poisonous to fish. Pouring any hard liquor (over 80 proof) on their gills will kill a fish in less than 30 seconds, any size fish. It takes a shot on the gills on each side of the fish, less for the smaller ones, so no thrashing around, no violence, no blood spraying all over the boat. I used to keep 100 proof vodka in a soap bottle to make the application easier. Real fishermen usually don’t believe this works until they see it happen. I flooded the Trigger fish’s gills with tequila and it calmly expired, much easier than the time honored tradition of beating them over the head with a winch handle. Trigger fish are good to eat, but have tough leathery skin that even a very sharp knife won’t penetrate so I started cutting through it with scissors, pulled its guts out and fed them to the seagulls. Rich had mentioned a few days before that I’m not a typical woman and I honestly (maybe dumbly) wondered what the hell he meant, until Sharon, the Captain’s girlfriend dashed below in a tizzy and wouldn’t come back on deck until the fish was dead, filleted and wrapped in plastic just like the ones in the grocery store. It was then I realized I’ll probably always be considered just one of the guys. Self-sufficiency gives me the confidence to survive anywhere, so it wasn’t an unpleasant thought.
     When I was ten I begged my parents for a microscope and dissecting kit. While my sister was taking ballet lessons, I was busy exploring the inner workings of dead frogs. I took engine repair and radio building in summer school. My sister paid attention to style and dressed well, she could walk down any street and turn men’s heads. I learned to fix their cars. I don’t think she’s ever cleaned a fish. It’s not that I envy women with the power to swivel heads, it’s just that the finer points of femininity have simply eluded my grasp. I gave up worrying about it a long time ago, but I still have a mild appreciation for women who swoon while dinner is killed and gutted simply because they seem to have something I don’t. I remember the look on a group of Mexican fisherman’s faces a month back on a beach as I picked through a pile of fish guts where they were cleaning their catch for the day. I didn’t have enough Spanish to ask questions, but I really wanted to know how they cut up different types of fish. That’s how I knew what to do with the trigger fish. But I’d bet money as those guys watched me turning over the carcasses of large dead fish, not one of them thought about asking me out.
      The following is the cover of the soon to be published telephone book for American Samoa. The painting is of Michael Talitiga Isaako, a talented Samoan fire knife dancer who I used to know. Please write to me at if you are interested in purchasing a gicleé print on canvas of this painting. I cannot recommend the McDonald’s in Tafuna though; they gave me such violent food poisoning that I ended up in the hospital.  

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Blog break

     This week I’ve barely been in the same place as my computer. Crew members have been changing and each is a new adjustment, a new personality to incorporate into the dynamic or say good-bye too. I’ll be leaving the boat in a week, back to the wacky hotel in downtown La Paz. Tomorrow we leave to sail to an island called Espiritu Santo, a marine preserve, where the fish are abundant. I'm the lame duck crew now, but have one last sail to enjoy. I’ve been given the job to shop for food for the trip with the new crew person from Australia.  Some markets involve asking for things behind the counter so I need to sign off and go over my vocabulary lists for food items. Here’s the best photo of week, too bad net throwing in the grocery store isn't an option, I could write more and study Spanish later.   

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The kindness of strangers

     Getting sick suddenly makes traveling seem like a stupid idea. Why ever go five miles from home? Oh, right, I don’t have a home. And come to think of it, I’ve been sick at home too, when I had one. I ate something, swallowed water in the shower or put my shoe in my mouth while I was sleeping. Who knows? I woke up sick a few days ago and couldn’t keep anything in. Luckily I am in a hotel and not on the boat where the marina toilets are a long, long way away. I would have been sprinting or hiding in the hedges since we don’t use the boat head in the marina. But as it happened I’m in this wacky hotel where the owner fortunately happens to be a doctor, he told me not to eat. When this happened in American Samoa from eating at McDonald’s, I was also told by the local doctor not to eat anything. Starve the bugs and they leave your system faster. I did that. I lay in bed all day hungry and wrote countless emails. Raul, the manager went to the store and came back with an electrolyte drink for invalids. Julio, the maintenance guy gave me a bottle of pills, which turned out are for ulcers so I didn’t take them, but his concern was touching. I must have looked ghastly wobbling into the courtyard to sit in the sun, before I had to dash back. Being sick is lonely, lying in bed feeling sorry for myself and all. I missed my art classes, a gallery opening and a few meals, but it didn’t really matter. Instead I was shown genuine concern from strangers, which is so very heartwarming and actually a very good reason to travel. We all get sick, as it turns out this is the best place it could have happened. I almost wept when I was handed a bowl of soup for breakfast this morning in the staff kitchen. It was kind of them to talk me into joining them. It tasted so good, there is nothing like deprivation to heighten the senses. I sat in the kitchen slowly sipping spicy red broth with lime next to a tiny boy, dressed like Spiderman who was being hand fed. The staff chatted and laughed with each other, which is universal, it doesn’t really matter what is said. I could have cared less if they were laughing at me, but I doubt they were.
     A few hours later I ventured out to the sidewalk, still not willing to go much further. The doctor and Raul asked how I was feeling.  In rapid Spanish they covered a lot of ground that I couldn’t keep up with. I caught the word dog a few times though. Raul explained that the doctor doesn’t like the place Julio went for the soup because he thinks they use dog meat. Had I been given the option I might have declined breakfast out of ingrained American sensibilities, but honestly, it was still the best soup I ever had.
     There’s a giant spider living in the bathroom. I’m careful when I turn the light on not to scare it. It sits in the same place without moving for so long that at first I thought it was dead. I can’t bring myself to kill it and so far it hasn’t seemed bothered to share the room with me. One day I may find out it is deadly poisonous with no antidote, but like dog soup, lack of knowledge is everything.  

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Hotel Yeneka

     Through a friend I found a small hotel in downtown La Paz, Mexico. Walking into the courtyard the first time has a similar effect on everyone. Eyes wide, mouth open, a touch of vertigo. Every surface is jammed with the flotsam of Baja. If it’s old, funny or just plain worn out the second generation owner, who everyone calls the Doctor (because he is a doctor), nailed it to a wall or hung it from the rafters. Although there appears to be little room left, he’s still buying and building stuff. The palm horse, many of the metal sculptures and some of the crazy furniture are the doctor's. Howard Finster (Paradise Gardens), Calvin Black (Possum Trot Doll Theatre) and Ferdinad Chevalm (Stone Palace of Fantasy) are similar unruly inner visions made tangible over a lifetime. Often considered crackpots, until they expired and the price of their work soared, their compulsive souls listened to the whisperings of the unconscious unheard by most. Hotel Yeneka, YNK to backpackers, is a forty year work in progress.
     Only a compulsively driven atypical mind, and that's meant as a compliment, could turn so much junk into a place of interest, much less one people would want to stay overnight in. I’ve been here a few days and watched people walk in look around, laugh out loud and then trip over their own feet. So much stuff crammed into one area has a highly disorienting effect. It’s random, yet orderly, charming and disturbing and simply the best example of controlled chaos I’ve run across. It would be simply terrifying in an earthquake. A large hairy monkey used to live at the hotel, but died and is now stuffed, the permanent passenger in a Model T going nowhere.  In all the layers of once useful items, including antlers and whale bones, there is a sense of history, like unearthing an old landfill. The objects are carefully displayed like precious relics and by employing a strategy of incredible density they curiously become a treasure not to be overlooked.

                   Hotel Yeneka
                   1520 Madero
                   La Paz, Mexico

Sunday, April 3, 2011

La Paz

     La Paz is not pretentious; it’s a city a little like Oakland in California with a waterfront that is not unlike South Beach in Miami. People are friendly and even though I try to speak with very limited Spanish, I’m finding that people are more willing to practice their English. The result is a twice broken conversation with a lot of smiling and head nodding. Other than in the marinas very few gringos are walking around, but I remember that about La Paz from when I was here twenty years ago. Very little is what you expect, which is what makes it interesting. The pet store is also the place to shop for bulk spices, from our slip in the marina (a mile and half from town) we can hear thumping music from the dance clubs and the traffic is just crazy. Pedestrians are more like target practice. Cars reach top speed between stop signs and stand on end stopping, if they bother. Lights are a suggestion. Guys dance in traffic for tips. More than once I found I can still run very fast since buses apparently don’t have any brakes. Art in Mexico is exceptional and I could learn a lot about painting as the work in galleries is better than anything I’ve seen, pretty much anywhere. This coming weekend La Paz is hosting an art festival with guest artists from Australia, including a group of fire dancers. Whimsical sculptures line the Malecon and grace the courtyards around town.