Previous Next

The author with 'victim' at camp in Cerritos, Baja California Sur. Notes: (1) usage of crossed sticks (with electrical tape) on either side of fire. Hang your cooking pot from a stick and then place it here. (2) Maintain strong firewood supply. (3) Minimum 5 gallons of water. (4) Usage of camoflauge to blend into environment. Notice partner is also using camoflauge. (5) Usage of board-bag as 'rug' to keep sand out of gear. (6) Sleeping pad rolled into large 'C' shape and used as 'pantry' / 'table' to keep sand out of food / cooking supplies. Note big ass skillet.

Greeting

Internet Cafe in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur

YOU CAN’T walk through a door in Latin America without greeting the place itself. You’ve decoded this somehow. It’s like learning language or catching waves or rolling joints in corn husks. It’s a subtractive process, as if deliberately removing certain parts of your consciousness, so that stepping into the cafe, it’s only your 29 year-old body saying “buenas” – and what feels like a younger, almost toddler-age version of yourself listening for cues, for some kind of validation that you’ve said it right.

Which you have, it seems. There’s Paloma’s nasally “buenas,” her voice seeming directed less at you than towards the warm air in the center of the room. It was so bright walking through town that it takes your eyes a second to adjust. Bachata or something plays on the radio. Music that Paloma would look good dancing to. There’s the sound of computer fans and people typing. Something like “Bella Paloma” goes through your mind. She always wears these sundresses that show her tits when the light hits them. What would it be like to hook up with her? To just stay down here?

The 4 or 5 computers are all occupied. You don’t recognize anyone. Then you notice a woman sitting in a chair, obviously waiting for a computer. She’s giving off this energy of just happening to be here though, like a local, sort of here in the place but not purposefully here to utilize it, which is the way gringos / gringas always seem. But her features – blondish hair, freckles – don’t appear Mexican. As if picking up on your thoughts, or perhaps the way you talked with Paloma, she asks you where you’re from.

“Atlanta,” you say, unsure of why exactly you said it. Usually you just say “Estados Unidos.”

“Ah,” she says. “Atalanta.” She says it in an Italian accent. Her smile involves cheeks, eyes, lips, teeth, her whole face. Then she says something in Italian, her whole face smiling again, and waits for you to respond.

“No,” you say. “Atlanta Georgia.”

She looks confused now. “¿La República de Georgia?”

“No, Georgia,” you say, your accent breaking through, “Los estados unidos.”

You note the shift, or perhaps drift in her expression, registering it as possible disappointment (or at least surprise) over your nationality while simultaneously checking off another little “victory” on your fucked up mental scorecard of people trying (and failing) to identify where you’re from.

“Y vos?” you say. There’s no other chairs, so you’re standing over her in this way that makes it hard to look at her without your eyes diving into her cleavage.

“Buenos Aires.”

Your mind flashes on this Argentine girl you traveled with before.

“¿Cómo te llamas?” you ask.

Her name is impossible for you to pronounce correctly. But something about this, about stumbling over it, makes both of you laugh. You dissimulate looking at the floor tiles as her breasts jiggle. She has on these goofy running shoes. But she seems like the kind of person who wears them because they’re comfortable, not because she’s a runner, which makes you feel a certain tenderness.

She tells you a nickname for her that’s easier to say. And the way she does this (and then the way you repeat it) makes her seem less like someone you just met and more like someone you’ve known but forgotten about, then remembered again. For a second it’s like you’re both there watching the rest of the people typing, observing them together almost as if they were there for your entertainment.

Paloma says something across the room which makes the woman laugh. Then she says something back to Paloma and they both laugh. From the context it seemed like it was about waiting for the computers, but you’re not sure exactly. There’s this sudden bloom of anxiety. You worry somehow they were talking about you (“this gringo staring at our tits”) while trying to reason with yourself that this couldn’t be true. Then you just start feeling pissed, excluded, embarrassed, the gringo who can’t understand what the fuck is being said. But you sit there smiling as if you understood everything. This morning you caught this one wave where the lip started throwing overhead. You can see the slab of water there again in your mind. Without realizing it, you start compensating for being the gringo or whatever by subtly broadcasting (without appearing like you’re trying to broadcast) your local knowledge.

“Have you been to Cerritos?” you ask.

“Sí,” she says, which sort of surprises you.

“It’s so good, isn’t it?” For a second you see the little crew you’ve just met there, Socio and his girl. This French-speaking girl whose family drove down from Canada in a van. These other Mexican kids from Ensenada. Wherever you go you always look for the one crew that seems to be at the center of the place. These people weren’t in some surf camp or hostel or fucking RV park. They were camped right there on the point. Who cared if you had to carry in your water? Or that it wasn’t “guarded” or whatever? It was free there. And the wave was better too, at least right now. Meanwhile you and your friends were staying in San Pedrito with all the other gringos. It occurs to you now to just move over to Cerritos, to set up over there.

The woman still exudes this ease or something as she sits there. You can’t really explain it. But the feeling you’d had, the sense of watching the other people in the room together, is gone now. You’re once again just a person waiting for the computer. Then somebody finally finishes, and as the woman stands you say something noncommittal about seeing each other – maybe “out there on the beach.” After a while another computer opens up and you start emailing people and don’t really think about her again.

The next day

But then you see her the next day. It’s around mid-morning, after the heat and wind have come up. She’s lying stomach down on a sarong. There’s like this 7 year old American kid next to her, and what appears to be the kid’s mother. It seems super random. She gives that full face-smile again like yesterday, and then you find yourself sitting down in the sand next to them in a way that seems funny, spontaneous, sort of collapsing in a show of how exhausted and rubbery your body feels after 4 hours of surfing.

“Do you drink mate?” she asks.

“Sí.”

She pours hot water from her thermos into the mate and then passes it to you.

“This is McKenzie,” she says, smiling at the blond kid.

“”sup McKenzie.”

“And his mom Jane. They’re staying in Todos Santos too.”

“Hey y’all.” You nod at Jane and smile and then kind of close your eyes a second and roll your head back. The mate is warm and bitter. You’re shivering slightly from being in the water so long, even though the sun is hot now. You peel off your rash guard so you can feel it on your back. Usually you feel self-conscious about having your shirt off; you’re kind of hairy and muscular, slightly gorilla-like. But you don’t care now for some reason. You pass the mate back, and while she pours one for herself, you check her body, experiencing a strangely abstracted attraction, as if sitting beside a body of water, a cove or inlet, and wanting to swim around in it.

McKenzie walks out towards this grey-bearded man playing in the shorebreak with a boogie board.

“That’s Jim,” she says, passing you another mate. “He’s kind of crazy.”

The shorebreak is at least chest-high and dumping hard. Waves for “whomping” as the kids from San Diego would say. You’re kind of afraid for little McKenzie and Jim out there. You keep sipping the mate, and for a second it’s like you’re taking in the entire surf zone simultaneously – the now white-capped swell rolling in from the outside, the lines closing out by the point, a few dudes out still scrapping to find peaks, the whomping shorebreak, the whole realm. The theater.

Jim and McKenzie start walking back up from the water. There is something like that same feeling you had yesterday of watching everything together. You tell her you need to get back to camp before getting burned up and ask her if she wants to meet in town later.

She says yes.

San Pedrito

Later that afternoon, under the “superpalapa,” you’re trying to convince Paul and Terry and Audi to move with you down to Cerritos. DJ is already with you, but everyone else is balking.

“But the wave here is shut down,” you say. “Cerritos is working. Why the hell do we want to stay here?”

“We’ve got the superpalapa,” Audi says.

“Yeah, I know, that’s kind of a hit.” You’d previously gotten the biggest of all the 30 or so palapas through a late night exchange with some crew that was heading back to LA.

“The thing is, if the wave cleans up it will be way better here,” Paul says. “Besides, I don’t want my shit to get stolen.”

“Nothing’s getting stolen dude. No pasa nada.”

But Paul has been coming down here longer than anyone, he’s half Mexican, and it sort of makes him the de facto leader. There’s no convincing him.

“It’s all good,” you say. “But I think I’m moving there tomorrow.”

“Cerritos is free,” DJ says, less in a persuasive way than to imply that it isn’t really the money or the wave or the palapa but some kind of ideological difference between the places.

A few hours later you tell everyone you’re going into town, that you have a date. You’ve been worried there might’ve been hard feelings about the move thing, but then you hear Paul singing some crazy chant. He’s beating on a cooler and singing “Lecheron!” which you translate as “milkman” but aren’t sure exactly.

“Come on dude,” you say, waving your hands as if to say the joke’s over. But Paul keeps going, and suddenly, perhaps in the haze of multiple smoke sessions that afternoon, it seems like some kind of actual voodoo shit he’s pulling here, some real chant that maybe his brothers would sing growing up in East L.A. And goddamn if he doesn’t keep it going, communicating – it would seem telepathically – to go ahead and let the shit ride out with you as you (and DJ, who has decided to go as wingman) start walking towards the highway, the cooler drum and Paul’s chant still sounding faint and movie-soundtrack-like across the desert.

The date

You meet up in this bar in Todos Santos. Paloma is there too. The girls have dressed up a little bit. You order beers and mess around at the pool tables. Paloma is trying to practice her English with DJ, which makes everyone laugh. You keep finding yourself standing close to this woman. It makes you nervous in a way that you believe would be lessened if you could just stand even closer and maybe hold hands. This one track (“Procura” by Chichi Peralta) keeps playing, which you don’t understand the lyrics of, but which makes you feel good, especially when it gets to the chorus and the backup guys start singing.

“I didn’t tell you this,” she says, “But the other day when we met: I’d already seen you on the beach before.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. It was a couple evenings ago. You were sitting there looking really cold, almost blue. I thought ‘who is this guy? He looks like he’s from Serbia or something, like a ref. . .’”

It takes you a second to translate the word for “refugee.” And then you’re not sure actually if this is what she said.

“Even though the water’s warm, you get cold if you stay out there long enough, I guess,” you say. “I guess I get cold easily.”

Everyone keeps drinking beer. You try to dance for a little bit. It’s beautiful watching the girls dance. “They grew up listening to this music,” you think. You dance some too, but it’s embarrassing and you go back to drinking beer. At some point DJ says he’s going to head back.

You ask her if she wants to walk around town, and when you leave you finally take her arm. It’s gotten colder and the night is super clear. You say something about Orion, the “Tres Marias.” Todos Santos seems strangely abandoned.

Somehow you start talking about life-goals. She says something about having a family, about wanting kids, but that she knows she might not find the right guy. “It doesn’t matter,” she says. “Even if I don’t find the right guy, I’ll still have a family. I’ll just get artificial insemination.”

You think something like “Jesus baby, you don’t have to do that; I could help if it came down to it,” while feeling both impressed but also kind of intimidated at how she knows what she wants for her future. You don’t really know what you want except for there to be surf tomorrow.

Neither of you seems to be paying attention to the streets. It keeps getting colder though, and you press in tighter together. You start to notice grass. It’s out of place in this terrain – all dry sand, saguaro and pitaya cactus. But then you hear and finally see a creek flowing through and remember that there’s a spring here, that this is how the settlement of Todos Santos began. You stop and look upstream. Off in the far distance is the jagged outline of the sierra. You point out a notch where there must be a canyon. Socio had said there were supposed to be deer up there.

After walking her to her hotel, you say goodnight, only it comes out sounding like a question. She looks at you as if waiting for you to act, and then you grab her head behind either ear and start kissing her in a way that seems surprising, forceful. The whole night you’ve felt this thing where she’s older and you’re more of a kid. Where she’s Latina and you’re a gringo. Where she speaks in a way that’s flowing and you speak in a way that’s crude.

You break apart for a second. There’s a feeling of almost like “OK, we got that out of the way.” You move back in and slow down this time. The two of you communicate something with your tongues and lips and hands that feels beautiful and somehow sad. Then you go even slower. Then you stop and say buenas noches again. This time it’s less of a question. You both still have your palms up towards each other, the tips of your fingers interlaced. You begin to pull your hands apart, but then you start up again. Then finally you pull apart and say “nos vemos” and she says “nos vemos” back and you keep thinking about that phrase and how it means you’ll be seeing each other again as you walk 7 miles back with desert all around and no cars passing and no flashlight but moonlight enough to see everything, and always in the distance the sound of breaking waves.

Where it 'went down.' Click on photo for full size.

The “Nest”

The next morning you hike all your shit over the headland and down to Cerritos. You set up a long way down from the point, at least a few football fields away from anyone, placing the tent several pitches back from high tide line where it’s semi-hidden in the vegetation and there is plenty of driftwood for cooking-fires.

You’d arranged with DJ to meet back there later, telling him you’ll get water and supplies in town. After hitching in (surprised how far it seems) you buy the biggest skillet they have in Todos Santos. You buy a large cookpot with a lid and arced handle so you can hang it over the fire. Before entering the mercado you’d repeated the words to yourself aloud: sartén, olla in a way that felt vaguely ceremonial. You buy tomatoes, chiles, cilantro, onions, limes, rice, beans, cheese, tortillas, coffee, and sugar. You buy “delicados,” light oval-shaped cigarettes with sweet-tasting ends.

The question

And then, as if it were all planned, you see her walking through town. She gives you the face-smile, but here in the sunlight it seems embarrassing to move right up to her with all these bags in your hand and a 5 gallon water jug over your shoulder. You’re not sure if you’re supposed to kiss again, so you just set everything down and stand nearby, studying her face, checking – nervously now – for signs that she really doesn’t want to talk to you, that she’d really rather just continue on doing whatever else she was doing.

“Hola,” you say.

“Hola.”

You know a fancy way to ask how she woke up, literally, “how did you dawn?” but the way you say this comes out sounding like you’re acting or something. You just want to get back to how it felt last night and you can feel your face all stiff and worried-looking. You don’t really know what to say.

“Listen,” you say.

“¿Sí?”

“Um.”

And you think about your little camp down past the point. Your pieces of gear spread out there. And it’s like you have no confidence. No sense that you yourself can “offer” anything to this woman. But this place you’ve found: maybe it would be better for her there, better for you there with her. And so you ask her if she wants to camp with you. You say it simply, and somehow – perhaps by virtue of it not being in your native language, perhaps because you feel baby-like and powerless at this exact moment – your question seems to simultaneously imply everything and nothing. That it’s not so much an invitation that will lead to sex – which, from the look in her eyes now, you both seem to know that it will – but that sex is almost beside the point. That it’s literally camping together. Passing time together in this place.

Feature photo by Sue Jan.

Narrative

 

About The Author

David Miller

David Miller is Senior Editor of Matador (winner of 2010 and 2011 Lowell Thomas awards for travel journalism) and Director of Curricula at MatadorU. Follow him @dahveed_miller.

  • http://twitter.com/cherilucas cheri lucas.

    “Listen,” you say.

    “¿Sí?”

    “Um.”

    Especially loved this bit. I’ve certainly experienced this very moment, this pause, when what comes next is at once uncertain but obvious. And really exciting.

    • http://miller-david.com david miller

      thanks cheri.

      i feel like ‘uncertain but obvious’ describes so many of my moments.

      glad you were feeling this, stoke.

  • http://matadornetwork.com/ Carlo Alcos

    This came out beautifully. Loved it. Felt the vulnerability.

    • http://miller-david.com david miller

      thanks carlo, stoke.

  • http://twitter.com/onceatraveler Turner Wright

    Very nice story. I was really swept into it.

    • http://miller-david.com david miller

      hey turner, it’s good to hear from you man. stoke.

  • Tim Patterson

    Not much to say, except to say thanks for the story – it’s beautiful – and feels full circle, in a way, since it was your story from Cerritos that brought me to Matador back in – when – 2006? – and I’m glad to get back there, having met you, and Lau, and been to places like Buenos Aires and Boulder and El Bolson.

    • http://miller-david.com david miller

      thanks tim, stoke.

      full circle seem right.

      full circle and fast.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joshua-Johnson/100001526442445 Joshua Johnson

    bravo!

  • http://wayworded.blogspot.com/ Hal Amen

    there are a handful of pieces that could serve as points for charting the progress of matador-style on some sort of line graph…exemplars…this, for me, is the latest.

    • http://miller-david.com david miller

      thanks hal, stoke.

      a graphic representation of matador style progression would be pretty sweet.

  • Mike Surber

    Great story, man.

    • http://miller-david.com david miller

      thanks mike, stoke.

  • Jason Wire

    This piece reminded me of that strange confidence that you get from speaking a foreign language, where you see the words in your head laid out, the text detached from the idea of what you’re saying, as if you’re just trying out the expression but not really sure if you mean it.

    Also, diagram stoke.

    • http://miller-david.com david miller

      interesting. never thought trying to speak a foregin language as giving confidence.

      it did / does feel sometimes like you can create a different personality or something.

      i know kids who grew up biculturally here in patagonia and they each have two different personalities depending on the language they speak.

      feeling the diagram stoke.

  • Annearchynow

    Love this.

  • Baxter Jackson

    The title was misleading, the story went nowhere and the 2nd person narration seemed forced. But I liked it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Black-Friday-Dewalt-Tools-on-Sale/237078406343678 dewalt sale

    mexican women are so sexy

  • Zubi

    There is no city called “Atalanta” in Italy.
    Atalanta is a soccer team, based in Bergamo.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atalanta_B.C.

    • http://miller-david.com david miller

      yes, this moment was very confusing.

      all seemed to begin with misunderstanding.

      thx for clarification.

  • SPortz

    Really enjoyed this story….nice work. You captured the atmosphere and undercurrents well. 

  • http://twitter.com/Nomad_Student Jessalyn Pinneo

    Not at all what I was expecting based on the title, but an interesting narrative that really drew me in and made me feel as steeped in (and yet separate from) the local rhythm as you seemed to be. Thanks for sharing!

  • Mix

    real nice – makes a good break from studying. cheers bud

  • flyingknuckle

    Loving the sound visual… “the cooler drum and Paul’s chant still sounding faint and movie-soundtrack-like across the desert.” Great piece David.

  • Mary Sojourner

    I have complicated reactions to this – in part because for the last three months I’ve been working in the complicated world of sacred land battles.  I understood where you were arcing with this, but the title and some of the “scoring” language made me want to stop reading.  You know I’m not a prude.  Because of a lot of work with N.A.’s and Mexicans these last months, I’m thinking in terms of colonization a lot – of the indigenous person and the tourist.  As a woman who never understood why guys score and women relent – I was blessed to love love-making from the first time a boy touched me – that whole sexual conquistador gig is weird.  So I started out reading with my gut clenched.  I felt sad for “you”.  And, when I understood that she wanted the narrator as much as he wanted her, I wanted to sit down with them and say, “Hey, there’s a better way.”I would love reading this as fiction, would not read it with my walls up.Tricky stuff.  Especially because of the multiple layers of colonization the Western Hemisphere – and in each of our psyches.

    • http://miller-david.com david miller

      thanks for commenting mary.

      i appreciate your comments.

      it’s interesting to look back at this time. it seems now one of the most beautiful of my life. there was a sense of flow occurring, something outside myself but which i felt connected to.

      i feel like if i had kept it ‘there’ – if i’d talked about how magical and transcendental it was, how the light was scintillating or whatever; if i had packaged the scenes of being down there as some kind of rich and meaningful cultural juxtaposition, a kind of ‘snapshot in the life of a in rapidly developing mexican town’; if i’d played up the economic struggles faced by the kids who sold drugs on the beach; if i’d written it in some other way, then maybe people could’ve have comfortably read it inside their walls.

      but the truth is that it’s only ‘beautiful’ in retrospect.

      at the time it didn’t feel beautiful or transcendental, but just was what it was.

      why this need to evaluate the way people meet and do what they do?

      how can one way be ‘better’ than another?

      what is, is.

      i feel like 90% of ‘nonfiction’ is people ascribing feelings to events that they didn’t actually experience at the time.

      is people justifying, obfuscating, promoting, romanticizing, ‘championing’, advocating, or otherwise glorifying their or others’ actions.

      for so many travelers, day to day, almost moment to moment experience seems totally dominated by envisioning / hoping / dreaming / planning / attempting to, and sometimes actually hooking up.

      but nobody writes about it.

      instead they write about a tour of ancient maya sites or whatever as if this were actually part of their culture.

      people write ‘around’ what they felt at the time. or they package it in a way that sounds acceptable.

      and yet, what you feel at the time is no less (or more) real than the sun that’s there, or the stars, or whoever you’re with.

      and i believe -  ironically, in the context of your comment – that not allowing ourselves to write what we felt is actually the mechanism for colonization, for conquest.

      it’s dividing yourself.

  • chuck

    What a hook. Of course, being a guy, I went right to it. “How I met my wife” woulda been a no show.  Your honesty and self-depradation  in your writing gave me a feeling of closeness to you.
    Again, being a guy, we seem to be all weak kneed bravado. The guy thing about boners and tits I liked because you are a guy and that is what guys are thinking.  You’d be surprized at what the girls are really thinking but then come across so sweet and demure. How do we Martians really get to know those Venusians, and vice versa, unless we can be honest. Martians love tits. Honest.  So Melody’s take was: “You boys, it’s interesting to hear it from a guy’s perspective”. Another style could have been boring.

    • http://miller-david.com david miller

      hey chuck,

      thanks for commenting. it seemed kind of hilarious reading your feedback and then get ‘melody’s take’ at the the end.

      the hook is definitely a gimmick. it’s just about pulling people in to read a kind of narrative they might not read otherwise. i just feel like travel – like everything – is about relationships. relationships forming, ending, missed. and this seems to be what’s missing in so many of our stories. we write about the mountains climbed or the towns passed through, when what’s actually there occupying most of our thoughts is the relationship we’re seeking / missing / having. and i feel like unpacking this, airing it out or whatever, can lead to something important. i feel like we need these stories, even if they come off crass or whatever. it feels important to strive towards the truth of how something felt because it can be instructive to  people, beginning with yourself as the writer.

  • http://idrinkmyteasweet.com Abhijit Gupta

    I liked the last two sentences a lot. Stressed on the innocence of the moment. Although, I felt dissonance of the article with its title – the article was full of honesty, confusion and what a foreign-language speaker would feel. But the title felt just wrong to me.

    • http://miller-david.com david miller

      thanks for commenting abhitit.

      i like how the title subverts people’s expectations.

      to me most ‘how to’ pieces are inherently untrue.

      • http://idrinkmyteasweet.com Abhijit Gupta

        I know what you mean.. (and also I was pretty sure your article wouldn’t have the content that it seems to promise). But, then, is it right to use a title which can be potentially ‘eye-grabbing’ even though the purpose might more be a social experiment than a cheap-thrill-article?

        • http://idrinkmyteasweet.com Abhijit Gupta

          p.s. Am just thinking aloud – more philosophically rather than as a criticism.

  • A much better writer

    God what a boring and drawn out story.  If you would have focused less on the hundreds of similes and trite metaphors I may have kept my interest beyond the first 5 paragraphs.  I can’t believe you actually won any awards for writing…

Aloha is real. You can live it.
Nathan films a surf outing with his friends on the shores of Mexico.
I thought she was crazy, but also something in me envied her.
Graham rides through southern Mexico liberating sea turtles, visiting ancient ruins and...
Hot, salty, and slow: this is summer in Baja California Sur. Teresa Ponikvar shows you...
A mob of giddy housewives, plenty of tequila, a secondhand wedding gown, an orgy's worth...
A guide for gettin' south of the border.
"You can be a bomb in bed without nuking the planet."
Here they are, surf breaks from the good, bad, to the ugly.
“Man,” he said. The star-specked shadow of night couldn’t hide the grin in his...
I was supposed to come home from Alaska with everything turned inside out.
You must leave your home and go forth from your country.