Sunday, March 19, 2017



It is Thursday.  Kim left two days ago, and I am now by myself in Zihuatanejo, Mexico.  My feet and now my right knee are giving me fits, old injuries angered by walking, dancing and lots and lots of stair climbing from the beach up and down to our hotel room, from our room to the lobby and street above.  This is old Zihuatanejo, old, well-kept hotels, no elevators or even handrails.  I like it like this. Even though Zihuatanejo has long since been "discovered" by Gringos and Mexicans alike, the town retains a flavorful, scrappy mix of old and new.  But right now, it's a painful, logistical problem.  I put on my clunky Keens sandals and slap a bandaid on the blister forming on my right big toe. I've sussed out a way to minimize my stair climbing by heading down two short flights of stairs, turning left to walk along the beach for 200 yards, then left again up a short, cobbled side street.  Today I wait as they finish filling a dump truck with rubble and drive off.  On the main cross street I hail a cab to take me downtown to the dock where I can catch a boat ride to Playa Las Gatas, across the bay.  Against my natural inclination to walk, I have schooled myself to take advantage of the cheap cabs and give my walking legs a rest. 

Playa Las Gatas - (the cats beach)

I grab the stanchion and carefully step over the gunwale, into the small open boat that will take us across the bay to Las Gatas.  It's a sweet ride, just 10 minutes, rolling across an easy, rhythmic swell on a beautiful warm day with trade winds blowing a comfortable 10 to 12 knots, just enough to take the sweat out of humid 85 degree weather. 
Named after cat-like whiskers of the sharks that used to inhabit the area, Las Gatas lies at the mouth of the bay behind a reef, so there is no surf, thus less aggravation for my knee.  There is a short stretch of beach textured with rough bits of coral reef.  Lined with palapa restaurants, it is surrounded by dense, jungly vegetation. A couple of years ago, during rainy season, I clambered off this same foot ferry and encountered three guys with flamethrowers.  "What do you use those for?" I ask, always curious about the endless differences I encounter in my Mexican travels.  "We kill the snakes at the edge of the bosque so they don't come around the restaurants."  It gave me pause.....  I decided not to trek from the beach through the woods and out to the point where there's a surf break.  Flat water of the small lagoon and shaded beach chairs were suddenly all the adventure I needed for the day.  Another day at Las Gatas I encountered a lazy-eyed, slightly predatory guy with a large iguana, tethered with collar and chain and perched on his shoulder.  You never know.

One of the many things I like about Las Gatas is that it's frequented mostly by Mexican families on a weekend getaway or vacation to the beach.  There are Americans, Canadians and others, but they are heavily outnumbered by Mexican children, parents, aunts and uncles all having a good time playing in the sand and water.  Today I wander down the beach and decide to stake out my spot close to the biggest concentration of little kids where the sand is smoother and I'm less likely to stumble over a hunk of coral.  A young waiter snags my attention with a promise of the best tacos, cerveza, margarita, whatever my heart desires.  I allow myself to be roped in by his charm as well as the location of this particular spot on the beach.  

Alone in Mexico, I am always more likely to strike up a conversation, given the main chance.  My waiter pulls up a lounge chair for me and offers a menu.  He is slender with a lean face and delicate features, his wavy dark hair pulled into a short pony tail low on his neck. We begin to chat.  The ice breaker question is always, "Where are you from?"  I love it when someone asks me this simple question in Mexico.  It means they're friendly and up for a chat.  I respond in Spanish, and we introduce ourselves.  Ruben's command of English is limited to restaurant vocabulary, understanding food orders and queries about the location of the bathroom. Perfect. This means we communicate in Spanish.

For me, one of the joys of traveling here is the opportunity it affords to practice my Spanish, which is serviceable but far from elegant.  Ruben and I talk about bicycles, sports, baseball and soccer, how many children I have, his job and how they pay him a 10% commission on food and drink orders.  On busy days he does well, but on slow days, he makes little money.  He interrupts our conversation to solicit business as families and couples stroll by.  I go for a swim and come back to my chair for lunch, fresh albacore tacos, which are delicious.  After the midday boats have come and gone and what passes for a lunch rush is over, he sits down next to me.  We talk a little politics.  Most Mexican people are curious and sad about the recent presidential election in the U.S.  I tell him about my brother-in-law who carves skateboards and builds bicycles.  He tells me about his family.  As we talk, I struggle a little with Spanish words or phrases. Ruben helps me out, and we begin to form a nice warm bond.  What we lack in linguistic specifics is made up for in body language, facial expression, gesture and all the other bits and pieces of communication that carry you beyond words.

I taught English as a second language to immigrants for years, and I had to work hard to hear with a critical ear. Left to my own instincts, my communication with students leapfrogged beyond the vocabulary and grammar I was tasked with teaching.  I would forget to listen to the sentence structure or individual words and instead cut straight to the person, their intention to communicate, their spirit, their smile, their presence.  If I wasn't careful, the end of class would arrive along with the realization I had failed to calibrate their ability to use new vocabulary, past tense or personal pronouns.  I like languages, and I continue to tutor students.  While I take great satisfaction in watching them learn new skills, the ultimate reward for me is the relationships formed.

What does this have to do with migraine?

After a December vacation, in Zihuatanejo, with no headaches, I returned in February because I love this place and because I needed to know if I could replicate this ten-day miracle.  Instead I had nearly back to back migraines, every or every other day.  I have lots of theories about why, but it's all guess work.  What I have carried home from this trip are memories that supersede the pain in my head and my wounded feet and knee.  Writer Jeanette Winterson talks about "the wound" and wound stories.  "What we notice in the stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift: the one who is wounded is marked out - literally and symbolically - by the wound." She says, "All my life I have worked from the wound." My gimpy knee led me, out of the way, to this little beach and my encounter with Ruben.    My achilles injury pointed my way to the taxi stand and the opportunity to chat up the cab drivers.  Perhaps my head pain imposes a pace more conducive to true connections with people as I make my deliberate way, step by step, down the beach - or through my life

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