I will not start this story at the beginning, with the water packing, endless map checking and irritations festering among all participants about the details of a journey deeper into Baja California than most want even to consider. I won't start with the caravan of family cars, each symbolizing the fact that we own too goddamned much (for three days and 14 participants, we rented a separate van to carry food and diapers for the several of us under 2). I won't trouble you with the confusions of Mex-Insur; with the ass-numbing driving and driving and driving; with the wondering how much longer—and that's just to the border crossing south of San Diego, where representatives of two nations came to inspect our vehicles amid choking exhaust and a sun that felt as if it were a mere mile above our heads and the vague threat of violence, given the sudden appearance of so many holstered guns and uniforms—and roads that swing south and west of Tijuana along the Baja peninsula, between crazy-quilt condos on the ocean side with for-rent/for-lease/for-sale signs in English and back in the hills the hint of a life lived entirely in Spanish.
But I should probably mention one moment in all of this, just south of Ensenada, when it seemed a lot easier to drink from a hose in a Mexican gas station than to join the run on food and water in my brother-in-law's Suburban. Frame that moment for an instant and crop in tightly on the water and my mouth: it is not the last time you will see me bent double with liquid upon my lips.
If you have lived most of your life in Southern California or have lived within reach of the Southern California media—which means if you have lived anywhere in the world—you already know where at least a part of this story is headed.
But it's not the illness and bickering that attend travel I want to tell you about; you can find that pretty much anywhere. I'm not new in observing this, but it bears repeating that if you need a vacation to prepare for a vacation, you need a grave to recover from one.
I want to tell you about the ghost I met during the most miserable vacation of my life, in a small village on the central coast of Mexico, where I was attending my brother's wedding.
My brother dated many women born north of the U.S.-Mexico border, _but not one of them—not Tamara of the lean body and fat head; not Julie, the businesswoman with insomnia and a workout regimen that began at 4:30 a.m.; not any of the other countless women, some smart and decent, some as dumb as cats and just as indecent—was a match for Anna.
My brother met Anna Ramirez while surfing near San Quintin (pronounced "Canteen"), a collection of villages passing for a city about halfway down the Baja Peninsula. My brother and his friends surfed at San Quintin because, they complained, the waters off Orange County had become "sick"—not "sick" as it has come to mean among surfers, not "fabulous," "perfect" or "wonderful," but "sick" as in "toxic." If you live in Orange County, you already know what they mean; if you don't, the local chamber of commerce would be most grateful if you would ignore this part of the story.
So my brother likes to see himself as an epidemiological refugee, someone like the Mesoamericans who, terrified by the sudden appearance of man-killing smallpox in the 1530s, rushed to find safety in the heart of the disease—Hernn Corts' army, then advancing on Mexico City. He fell similarly to Anna. She was beautiful and smart—if not formally educated, at least well-read and thoughtful in the sense that she was full of thoughts that were her own—and my brother saw wonderful portent in the fact that Anna's mother, Doris (I cannot explain how a woman in central Baja ends up being called Doris), remained in her early 50s a woman of startling beauty. Despite the dust that blew across their little rancho—from sage hills that look like any in Southern California toward a shoreline as remote as Antarctica—Doris and Anna looked like Sophia Loren, if Sophia Loren had the mind of Arianna Huffington, the business instincts of Martha Stewart, and the compassion of Mother Teresa. My brother loved her.
On a Friday afternoon, we pulled into Casa Ramirez—a three-bedroom con-block house, trailer, stable and chickens—for their wedding and a few days on the broad, flat beaches a few hundred yards away. We were stinking and testy. Shortly, Anna's father, David, quieted us by walking past with a rifle. We were in conversation, we Americans, and we shut up on account of the rifle. He stepped lightly up the horizontal pipes of the corral, like a man walking up a wall in defiance of gravity, and dropped to the other side. He slipped a noose around the muzzle of the single steer grazing there and led the pliant animal out from under the cooling shade of a pepper tree into the bright light. He walked it around a corner as if the beast were no more than a dog and then leveled his rifle as the pair of them disappeared from sight. We recoiled from the blast, which felt like a solid thing moving through our chests.
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 Yucatn. 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.
Thus, the ghosts of my Friday afternoon.
A day later, as dark gave way to morning light, under an inky sky made almost white by starlight, I leaned against a smooth tree trunk a hygienic distance from the slaughtered steer. Buried in coals and earth, the carcass smoked in a way that ought to have reeled me in to its gustatory pleasures. Instead, I could feel my stomach rising again. And I could feel something else: a tapping on my shoulder.
I had been considering the ground around the roots of this particular tree so intently that I can see its gnarled, knuckled fingers clutching the dirt even now. I turned my head without standing up. There was a man as solid as the tree itself and just as verifiable, a man who appeared gradually to me in order of his smile, dark eyes, cowboy hat and mustache, plaid shirt and blue jeans, beer belly, silver belt buckle, white undershirt, hat sweat-stained at the crown, his mouth a bone yard of rotted enamel and incompetent dental scaffolding.
He smiled. "Where's the party?" he asked.
My Spanish is not so good, and it wasn't clear to me at the time whether the verb was present, past or future. If past or present, I figured, he's making a joke about my wretched state—like asking "How'd you get so drunk?" If future or present, perhaps he's asking about the smoking steer entombed in glowing hardwood coals. I bet on the steer.
"Here," I said in the simplest Spanish I could generate. "My brother and Anna. Marriage. On Sunday. In the church. Then, here for the fiesta."
He smiled. "Ahhhh," he said. "The little church?"
I said nothing for a moment, figuring that even a nod might toss my stomach. "Yes," I said finally.
"Pues, hasta la vista"—well, until then.
I closed my eyes and opened them, and the man was gone.
Later that morning, my cousins joked that I'd been smoking pot or hallucinating; shortly, however, the Ramirez clan had them convinced that I had seen Don Jose.
There was just one problem with this explanation: Don Jose is dead. Has been, apparently, since a time in my youth. And while this chronological flaw annoyed my family and made my brother smile enigmatically, it was greeted as something special by my brother's future relations. They didn't quite say I had the gift, that I was special, but they looked at me with admiration, I think. David patted me on the back on his way to check his smoldering beef; Doris said something to me in Spanish that my brother translated: "You can see."
"Maybe I just saw someone who looked like Don Jose."
"Maybe," my brother said, and in that moment, in his openness to the possibility of ghosts, I could see that he was already lost a little to the Western Enlightenment.
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That afternoon, the Mayans from the highway came to Casa Ramirez, a raggedy bunch of men no more than 5 feet 6 inches tall, with skin the color of saddle leather, hair so black that it seemed to bend light, and noses that suggested nobility —immense pointed things like the proboscises of Easter Island. They spoke to Doris. She looked at me, said something unfathomable in Spanish, and then retrieved Anna. Doris, Anna and the Mayans spoke, indicating me. In cobbled-together English, Anna said, "You, they, tonight, to sleep and see Don Jose." I filled in the gaps.
Don Jose, it turned out, was a long-dead village elder whose memory survived because of infrequent but well-reported appearances. That he appeared at all I credited to the fact that he was outlived by a reputation for rare goodness, outlandish generosity and raw—if very local—political power that made him something like a saint who might intercede on behalf of people hollowed by misery.
That night, I kept vigil with the Mayans. They spoke to me through my brother, revealing their deepest desire: to use my presence at this campfire to conjure Don Jose again so that he might help them with their problems. They were sick, poor and bewildered. They wanted Don Jose to cure the strange, choking coughs of their children. They wanted Don Jose to curb the voraciousness of the work-crew leaders towering over the nearby farmland. They wanted to go home—across the mountainous spine of Baja, across the placid Sea of Corts, across an almost cosmic stretch of the Mexican mainland—to a place they recalled for its lush, primeval fertility.
And I failed them in almost every way a man might. I tried to explain how global capitalism works, but the understanding availed them nothing. I described the various agencies in the U.S. that limited the use of pesticides; there might be sister agencies in Mexico, I observed. I urged them to speak to the local police or mayor or whoever it was that governed this place. Barring outside help, I urged them to organize, describing vividly the broad sweep of the labor movement—in my country and in theirs —and reminded them that, even then, a guerrilla outfit had mustered north of their homes in the state of Chiapas to combat precisely such indignities as they had described. I was as useless to them in that moment as a second set of nipples. And as the night wore on, I fought off sleep and waves of nausea aftershocks. Don Jose steered clear of our small halo of light. Toward dawn, the Mayans drifted off toward wherever they scratched a living from the dust, promising my brother they would return Sunday afternoon for his wedding. But I knew they wouldn't.