FROM TOP TO BOTTOM: Graceland – Paul Simon
Van Morrison’s first real love (the timeless singer, not the aging vehicle) was to Janet Planet. Though not to say my Van didn’t also have its share of loves sprinkled across its 41 rambling years. That also being said, I’m sure the actual Van Morrison had girls aplenty before settling on Janet, but she was the first one brave enough to legalize said love with marriage papers, thus earning a fair mention on Wikipedia.
Eight years ago I met a girl in a coffee shop. Though called Jess and not Janet, as Van might describe, it was love at first sight. We talked for hours and left wondering where each other had been all our lives.
Seven and a half years later, having never seen each other since, with the help of a wee social instrument known commonly as Facebook, we learned that while I was planning my Mexican bound excursion, she was already tucked into a quaint little town in the southern most part of Baja California: Todos Santos.
Without hesitation, she told me I had a place to stay when I arrived. And without hesitation I accepted. Much like Van The Man Morrison and his fair maiden, I instantly believed Jess to be the first true love of my life, and with the same certainty that I’ll never grow tired of hearing Van’s music, I knew I wouldn’t see a day in my coming future that she wouldn’t play a vital role in. (Five years later Vanet divorced, but this is neither here nor there).
Welcome to Todos Santos…
Eight hours of southbound road had come and gone between Mulege and me. All that remained was my final destination. I arrived in the balmy heat of the afternoon, just in time for Dia de los Muertos.
The quaint, cobbled streets of Todos Santos were lined with colourful flags as children clad in traditional Day of the Dead garb gleefully galloped around each other. The town was gently buzzing, which I would soon discover was not only a symptom of its country’s most widely known celebration, but simply its general state of being.
Baja drifters’ paradise…
I parked Van Morrison in the backyard of what could only be described as a humble, internationally friendly compound of sorts a mere spit’s reach from the town’s centre hub. Among the many of us traveling vagabonds who were lead here by nothing more than fate and perhaps a bit of dumb luck were a German, a Brit, a South African, a fellow Canadian, and a couple of Americans.
Throughout the course of my stay, this dynamic would shift on a regular basis. Almost daily, I would wake to find a new tent set up next to my inhabited space, a strange topless man taking photos of lizards, a large bun propped atop his perspiring head, or perhaps even a couple deep in meditation, transitioning from downward dog into child’s pose next to a jeep I assumed they had since slept in.
The large backyard was enclosed by a grey cement wall displaying various paintings and murals surely left by those come and gone. A long trailer sat perpendicular to where Van had chosen to retire. On the other side was a tee-pee like frame built from collected tree branches which held the weight of an impressively macromeyed hammock. The rest of the yard was bare apart from the odd surfboard and lingering kitten.
Dia de los Muertos…
The day I arrived was the kick off to the weekend’s festivities. The evening would commence with a halloween party held at a place called La Esquina; an infectiously charming open air venue that posed as a cafe by day and music venue and bar by night.
The necessity of a costume had completely eluded me, though never one to shy from a last minute challenge, I found in the depths of Van Morrison’s storage a vintage prairie girl inspired puffy sleeved and full skirted dress. I cut up an old shirt into what impressively resembled an apron, hung on to a carton of milk and voila! Milkmaid. After gracing my newly acquired Mexico family with my blatant sarcasm and dark, desert dry sense of humour, I was quickly deemed the “Sour Milkmaid”.
A horse with no name…
With a few steep margaritas under my apron, it was off we went; my new found love-of-my-life at the wheel, her Mexican right hand woman in the passenger’s seat, and me squirming with anticipation in the back. I stared with my head out the window like a dog, anxious to discover where we were going, yet all the more elated with every sight whizzing past.
Churro stands, taco stands, everywhere people smiling, nodding their heads and greeting you. A man on a horse. A man on a horse. My heart stopped.
“Jessica!… Jessica!… JESSICA!”
“Pull over!There’s a man on a horse!”
She pulled over.
“Hola!” My salutation was directed more to the horse than the man; my smile was practically beaming off my blushing face.
“Hola.” The man’s response was delivered more as a question than a retort.
Then here went my Spanish…
“Tu tienes un caballo. Yo quiero tu caballo.”
He looked at our truck blankly.
“Jess! Tell him I want to ride his horse. Tell him it’s not a euphemism. Tell him I’m a milkmaid without a horse. Tell him that’s blasphemy.”
She began to speak.
“What did you say???”
“None of those things.”
But the man began to descend from his horse. My eyes widened, my breath shortened. I looked to Jess in the front seat. She nodded confirmation. I was going to ride a horse. I squished my ecstatic body through the open window. There was no time for the frivolity of doors.
And so became my notably conspicuous inauguration into the world of Todos Santos; riding horseback through the streets and arriving at the entrance of La Esquina for all the world to see. From that day on I would forever be received as, “Oh yeah, you’re the girl on the horse.”
A post mortem celebration…
The next evening was spent in a cemetery. It was officially Day of the Dead and the entire town had gathered in the pantheon; old, young, and all of us in between. Every tombstone was glowing with warm candles and draped with orange flowers, their pedals lining each path. Wine stands were dispersed among the grounds, children were watching silent films projected on a white sheet against a large crypt and a lively mariachi band in matching blue costumes was serenading the celebratory guest as they wandered from grave to grave.
It was absurd. It went against every rule I’d ever been taught with regards to respectful graveyard behaviour.To come from a culture that mourns their dead and come upon one that celebrates them was enchanting. Where children are skipping over graves and adults are dancing and everyone is placing flowers and wreaths atop those they’ve loved and lost, smiling and laughing. It was beautiful. And I cried.
The next day I cried again. Not from the sheer rapture of my surroundings, but from the excruciating headache brought on by the several bottles of wine I had shared among the evening’s friends, both living and otherwise.
Jess handed me a michelada. Beer. Clamato. Lime. Salt. And something that resembled a kind of Mexican worcestershire sauce.
“Welcome to Todos Santos.”