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That steer would become the wedding feast, but I would partake of none of it, not because I object to eating meat but because as the sun went down that night, I became dizzy. My mouth filled with something like sweat. My head ached, my stomach protested, and my legs hurt. I feigned interest in conversation but politely declined all offers of food. I drank bottled water and even a few shots of tequila, figuring—incorrectly—that the alcohol might kill whatever had crossed the border of my lips from the hose at the gas station. At that moment, I was under no illusions: my body was captive to a power greater than myself. As everyone else sat around David's finely crafted picnic table under the stars of Baja—David playing a guitar and my brother singing beautifully, mellifluously, fluently in Spanish—I made my way beyond the small circle of light and stumbled into the darkness to find a secret place to puke.
I tried then to remember a story—where had I read it?—about a monk who had fallen to flu but had treated it as some kind of power source, welcomed the cleansing, and yelled happily with each retching release. I tried to wrench something similarly therapeutic from my misery, but I am not a monk: the perfect health of the others singing merrily back at the table stood as a rebuke to me, and in moments, everything I had eaten that afternoon and morning and maybe even a few things from the day before shot out of my mouth and nose.
That night, I didn't sleep. I tossed on a blanket on the warm ground, beneath a sky so clear that the universities of Arizona and Mexico had decided Baja made a better location than any in the brightly lit U.S. for a new observatory. And when I rose unsteadily toward dawn to throw up—or maybe it was to pee or do both at the same time—I met the ghost.
A friend of mine believes that we North Americans are more likely to encounter the supernatural abroad than at home because our collective thoughts—thoughts of light switches, life insurance, mechanical motors, computer chips, gravity, Taylorization, regular paychecks, day trading and assembly lines—operate as a psychic shield or defense system. "Our collective consciousness makes it impossible to see anything we're not trained to see—banishes ghosts, extraterrestrials, little people from our continent," he told me. "You might say we're trained not to see."
For that reason, we are more likely to describe ghosts in social and economic or political terms. Take as an example this Friday-afternoon vision on the road to San Quintin. I had already drunk lustily from the hose, and we were now passing through town: small stores and hotels, clusters of low houses painted in myriad pastels—impossible yellows, Toys R Us blues, reds. On our left, crop rows clicked by, wide at the roadside, narrow as they rose to meet the foothills; on our right, the flat land sloped gently toward the Pacific. Central Baja is a relatively affluent place; in the days before the Revolution of 1910, vast tracts of it were owned by a New York firm hoping to lure American wheat farmers to the area. A drought killed the wheat and the investment. British businessmen then bought the land and tried the same thing with even less success. In their wake, they left a few signs of turn-of-the-century commercial life—a railroad and the Old Mill, a beautiful, modest bed-and-breakfast place on the water.
But back on the road, I was on pothole watch; on our journey, whoever was riding shotgun kept an eye out for axle-smashing, tire-flattening holes. But I was bad at the job, more interested in the landscape and remarking on the fact that trash haulers in these parts have found an ingenious way to cut costs—they dump their trash in the occasional open spaces, allowing the lightweight debris to blow to hell and back and the heavier stuff to sit like modern art in the landscape—when my brother smacked into a pothole the size of a kiddie pool and swerved right, onto the soft dirt shoulder and into a dust cloud rising like God in the wilderness.
Everything slowed in the next instant: the dust and litter driven before the offshore wind stopped like rust on the metallic blue sky; everything in nature froze—the bending eucalyptus trees seemed to lean overhead, the roar of wind through the car windows fell silent—everything stopped but this: a crowd of people appeared from the dust cloud dressed in earth-stained rags and bandannas across their mouths. They were mostly the same size, though it was clear in this second-long glimpse that there were children among them.
And then my brother cranked the wheel hard left, and the car swung madly back onto the asphalt, narrowly missing a northbound truck. Oxygen and sense returned.
"Mayan," my brother said of the specters. Tomato pickers brought here from the bottom of Mexican society, the conquered people of the Yucatán. A few of their number may fight and farm alongside guerrilla leader Subcomandante Zero; these pick fruits and vegetables for the Mexican and American growers who supply a regional market in the American Southwest.
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