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La Paz Mexico

La Paz, Mexico Postcard

April 1998

It was a dark a stormy night. I am racing down the freeway to catch a plane to Baja -- running late, as usual. The rain starts getting serious, but there are virtually no cars on the road, so I keep up the speed, figuring I'm only a danger to myself.

At 4:30 am, nearing Topanga in the Valley, still an hour from LAX -- I'm totally flying through the heavy downpour -- as the freeway curves into a downhill stretch. That's when it happens. A bit of wind catches my little pseudo-jeep and it goes into a spin.

It is amazing how fast a car can slide when it has lost contact with the asphalt and is skimming on water. Now the car is skating along the freeway sideways. I'm thinking about the high center of gravity of the mini-4X4 as it leans sharply into the slope. The tipping hesitates -- but the jeep does not roll, instead it spins further around. Now, I'm zipping down the freeway backwards sliding across the lanes and then, like lightning, I'm flying off the road, backwards. Fortunately there isn't much drop-off. The car plows into mud and hits a small tree. It's good that there isn't any traffic or there would surely have been multiple collisions.

I'm ok -- just scared to within an inch of my life. The auto club truck comes eventually and carefully pulls the car out of the muck. The only damage is a small dent in the fender. Even the tree is intact because the mud had slowed the car. Shaken and happy to be in one piece, I drive slowly to LAX and get a seat on a later flight.

Jonathan Young, with mask

So, it is with a rumbling sense of gratitude that I begin a holiday in La Paz, down near the lower end of Baja California. The outing is an annual event for my sisters but this is the first time I'm coming along. As I walk into the hotel some seven hours late, my sisters and brother-in-law greet me with cheers from the veranda. I had called while waiting for the tow-truck and they knew I was all right.

The main reason to be there was to hang out with these two sisters -- Barbara, seven years older than I, and Michele, three years younger. I sometimes say that growing up amidst a gang of six siblings accounts for a fair amount of my brain damage. Seriously, though, I am close to my sibs and, being in a prolonged period of singlehood, it is good for my heart to spend time with family. Michele's husband, Dave, is into sportsfishing, and we trade jokes a lot, so a good time seemed likely.

Jonathan Young, with tail My goals for the expedition were -- to keep a full schedule of serious slacking, punctuated by great quantities of Mexican seafood. La Paz is not really a tourist destination. The grand hotels are down at the tip of Baja, at Cabo San Lucas. Some years back I saw some fine whales down there. La Paz, the capital of the state, is a genuine Mexican city with the bustle of business and only a few gringos. On the road into town, there is an enomous concrete sculpture of a stylized seabird merged with a whale's tail -- it is the symbol of the city.

In Steinbeck's novella, The Pearl, the poor pearl diver spends his only wealth, a large pearl, in sending for a doctor for his sick wife. The doctor comes from La Paz out to their hut by the sea but isn't able to save the woman. The indios diver refers to him as the *European* doctor. It captures the fact that, early in this century, the indigenous people, still thought of the Mexicans as foreigners.

The mood of La Paz -- the street vendors, the dusty Chevrolets, the concrete fantasia that seems to embroider every building -- took me into the seamless memory that connects travels in Mexico over decades. The central mercado is like open markets anywhere -- all fruit and hanging meat and the smell of fresh fish -- quite a banquet of scents. It reminded me of the old collective markets in Russia -- except here there is an abundance of food. Michele made sure to steer us to the dulceria to get a load of hot chile candies for her Latino students.

Barbara negotiated in good Spanish with a woman who seemed to live behind a stand of trinkets on the sidewalk. The woman, who had Aztec features, was happy to get the order for custom embroidered pens. There was some unspoken hitch as she looked over the list of names and colors that Barbara produced. Gradually, we noticed that she couldn't read. Hoping that one of her children would be able to read it to her, we took off for more exploring.

Since we were little, we have been traveling together. Through dozens of trips, an easy way of being with each other has developed. In Mexico, Barbara is the one we turn to for competent Spanish. Michele can shop with confidence. Dave and I can manage to get coffee and tacos with inventive use of gestures.

stone formations on beach in La Paz, Mexico

Mexico has long been the setting for many of my dreams. In years of earnest Jungian analysis, the symbolism has grown clear. To me, the land down south represents an earthy quality and a sense of timelessness. In dreams that take place in Mexico, I seem to be closer to the unconscious -- more open to emotion and magic.

Some of this freedom of spirit holds true during visits. Mark Twain once said something about how a vacation is best spent in a place where time goes slower. Mexico has a gracious way with time that I find deeply relaxing. Travel into another culture is a chance to see one's own reality as foreign. In Mexico, gringos seem loud, hurried, and unaware of taking up so much personal space. Watching Mexican families together, the sense of belonging and validation that those children receive has a richness that is rare in Anglo homes.

The visual symbolism of the ancient peoples of Mexico has figured large in my imagination. One of many family visits included climbing the pyramids outside Mexico City. I was about six on that trip. Afterwards, our house was full of pre-Columbian images. My parents collected dozens of copies of ancient pieces that fascinated me for years. In the sixties, whenever I went into an altered state, Aztec Gods came to visit me. The radiating color outlines in mesoamerican sacred art matched the visions that were part of my explorations at that stage. It was then that I realized how deeply the mythic qualities of early Mexican history had imprinted themselves in my inner life.

Looking through the anthropological museum and the shops in La Paz brought back all that lavish imagery. The few small items that I bought seemed like tributes to the rich experience of seeing the pyramids at that early age -- and then living with all those powerful artifacts.

The biggest treat of being in La Paz was going snorkeling with Barbara -- to see the tropical fish around the rocks just off the beach. The real dazzlers were the size of a pocket comb -- with two large spots of iridescent color. I swam amidst a school of slightly larger oval-shaped beauties with vertical yellow and blue stripes. They tolerated my presence and did not dart away. There were also some long ominous beasties the diameter of a hot dog with needle-like faces that lurked down in the rocks. I was careful not to step near them.

There is such a marvelous universe under the sea. Even the glimpse from a snorkel mask opens up vast patterns of creatures and dancing plants. I've snorkeled in dramatically different seascapes all over the world -- and there is no end to the wonders in the secret places just below the waves.

The best treasures I brought home from La Paz were two brightly painted masks from the Day of the Dead tradition. Such creations always have vivid animals worked into the design of the face. One has and eagle clutching a snake, the other a fish swimming across the forehead. They join the clutter of ritual objects, icons, and relics that fill the corners of my old house.

I also brought embroidered pens for a couple of friends. The woman who sat all day behind her trinket stand got all the colors right -- and had spelled the names perfectly.

Jonathan