DEEPER INTO THE DESERT: Hotel California (album) – The Eagles
Mexican roads have a bad rap. I was warned of this countless times before my departure. Single, narrow lanes, abrupt and unpredictably windy mountain climbs and plummets, potholes you could swim laps in, blah blah blah.
This was one of the many heeded warnings I let fall on my own deaf ears in order to maintain a state of assured delirium and successfully make it from Canada to Mexico in a very old and very unreliable campervan.
A metaphor for road maneuvering…
After leaving the outskirts of Ensenada, I was brutally thrust into reality. Imagine, if you will, your youth. And if not yours, then indulge in the reminiscence of mine. As a child in my town, a most favourite past time was spent at an arcade grounds called Scandia.
Within Scandia was a plethora of simulated gaming; hunting for amazon creatures with lifelike rifles, throwing bowling balls at the faces of terrifying clowns, feeding an overweight woman named Bertha figurative balls of fat in order to escalate her weight to an exponential scale.
One game in particular tousled my memory as I braved the notoriously poor roads of Baja California. The gopher game. Perhaps seen in slightly altered form, I believe this arcade game to be universal to some degree across the globe.
You stand with a foam hammer, a platter of seemingly unoccupied holes lay before you. You insert your coin and wait. Suddenly, tiny heads of intrusive vermin protrude from these holes in an overwhelming and untraceable pattern. Instantly, you are thrown into a to-the-death sequence of bopping heads or succumbing to shameful and irrevocable loss.
Much like it’s arcade counterpart, a Mexican road will also throw you into a to-the-death scenario. Though perhaps less burrowed mammals and more just vacant craters, instead of bopping the heads of those trying to escape the holes, you’re frantically trying to avoid them altogether; your defeated tires mimicking the stunned rodents as they drop helpless into the depths of their holes.
And if you’re among the likes of yours truly and decide to voyage these uncivilized roads with a top heavy vehicle, gopher metaphors will be the least of your worries. Mexican winds be fierce. Mexican semi drivers be fiercer. Take an equation of the two, add one oversized campervan with alarmingly loose steering, a narrow road teetering on the edge of steep mountains with not a single meridian to ease your paralyzing fear of heights, and you’ve got yourself a situation.
Finally! A winery!
But a survivable one. Perhaps made more survivable thanks to a modest little winery in the middle of nowhere in a village called Uruapan who served me TEN tastings of local wine, along with bread and homemade herbed cheeses to compliment the palet. All for free.
Who needs Valle de Guadalupe anyway! So what if the strange old man who ran the tiny tasting room out of the back of his house tried to kiss me while showing me his excessive collection of pet birds. At least it wasn’t raining.
Just before rolling into San Quintin, my belly began to do the dance of a thousand hunger pangs. But I wasn’t worried. Miles of road past and many more ahead were sprinkled with various food stands. Tacos, birria, tamales. But what really had me salivating were the ever abundant signs for mariscos. Seafood. More seafood.
One can never have too much seafood…
I pulled up to a lone standing, blue building with painted sea creatures parading around its walls. Inside was one big open space, plastic chairs and tables scattered at random. Stacks of boxes and flats of Fanta and Coke were piled almost ceiling high, separating back of house from front.
It smelled raw and delicious. Most tables were occupied, their displays of ocean fresh food demanding every shade of envy. It must have taken me at least twenty minutes to commit to a decision.
Coctel de cameron. Shrimp cocktail. In all it’s layers of flavourable glory complimented flawlessly with large chunks of immaculately ripened avocado. This dish would go on to be a dietary staple throughout my Mexican ramblings, never shy of satisfaction.
I had planned to spend the night in Catavina, a barely there village with a population of no more than 160 lying just over an hour south of El Rosario. El Rosaria was adorable. And had I not had it in my mind to keep to my plans, I may have stayed there forever, or at least the evening.
The town felt much like my home in British Columbia. Small stretches of farmland, plenty of greenery, dry mountains and rolling hills. The people were friendly and the town seemed to almost glow in its welcoming disposition.
As I furthered southward, the treacherous roads petered off and became less white knuckle inducing and more vacant. Miles passed before I saw another vehicle. In the ditches, vultures pecked ruthlessly at cattle corpses, their legs upright and stiff from rigor mortis and I soon began to wonder how long it would take for me to match the fate of those cows were I to suddenly break down.
If I had been worried about losing my mind alone on the frequented roads of California, Baja’s Highway 1, bare as the bones on the abandoned carcasses, was sure to be my demise.
Catavina: a desert oasis…
But within the distance, a sign could be seen with the assurance of Catavina, 5 km. Catavina: an enchanting yet entirely overpriced mirage. When I entered the town, the first thing I saw was an old jeep parked on the side of the road next to a poorly painted sign reading PEMEX GASOLINE.
I had been warned that gas was sparse after El Rosario, but this was just hilarious. Roadside pick up trucks, their beds filled with barrels of gas advertising a price high enough to make you walk.
A few meters down, with nothing in between, appeared as if out of nowhere a most inviting yet completely juxtaposed Hotel Mision, encompassed comfortably by high standing palm trees and impeccably kept gardens.
As I pulled into the grand entrance, I genuinely questioned whether it was in fact, truly even there. If any of this was at all real. If Catavina was real. Perhaps I’d been riding through the desert on a horse with no name and this was where I had finally succumbed to insanity.
It wasn’t until the receptionist gave me my bill that the hard lump of reality lodged itself firmly in my throat.
So this is how this village maintains its economy. Exploiting the desperate needs of wary travelers through offensively overpriced “gas stations” and illusive accommodation.
But how could you blame them? They were literally in the middle of nowhere, not an ounce of civilization for hours either way. And, anyway, I was the fool, apparently one of many, who needed what they conveniently had to offer.
(Months from now, upon my return to Canada, I will discover that this hotel mirage happily offers a free space in their back gardens for campers to park overnight along with the use of their facilities, including their bar. A life of lessons learned.)
The only hotel in existence…
The hotel was gorgeous and spotless; an open air concept with a giant palm tree protruding from the centre of the lobby next to a rustic water fountain. Large arches led to the various areas of the hotel: a cozy restaurant with rose coloured walls, a vintage bar with a small pool table and wooden stools, and a simple courtyard with a waterfall flowing into a clear and sparkling pool.
My room was at the end of the farthest corridor, just around the peaceful courtyard. I opened the door and was flooded with warm, hospitable fuzzies. It seemed I had been given a suite. Explains the breaking of minuscule bank. But what a palace of a suite it was. Then again, having lived over a month in the cramped confines of a campervan, perhaps perspective was, is in this case, rather subjective.
Nevertheless, it was everything and more a poor, wearisome vagabond could hope for. The room itself was large enough to execute many a cartwheel, a massive bed, an antique desk to write at, a dainty chair in the corner to read in, and a shower big enough for at least three.
But the most attractive feature was the large, wooden shutters opening to a most spectacular view of the hotel’s garden of cacti.
I felt like I had been taken away, far from slender highways and bottomless potholes, barbaric semi trucks and debilitating heights. I was in paradise. And I planned to take advantage of every penny it had cost me.
The pool was freezing ass cold. Half immersed, and not three minutes in, I caved. No bother, a light sweater and heavy book, sprawled across a lounge chair would be just as luxurious. The hotel was completely empty. I was beginning to see a somewhat disconcerting pattern in my rest-stop-fate, consistently finding myself alone.
But having not a single sound but the light trickling of the gentle waterfall to serenade the heart rendering poems of Elizabeth Sargent as I read quietly to myself, I could not better define a more perfect haven.
The arrival of guests…
That was, until, a great roaring of obnoxious vehicles penetrated my silence and hoards of middle aged men, appearing through a billowing cloud of dust, seized rooms throughout my solitary corridor. They were suddenly everywhere. All men. And me.
The first time we officially crossed paths, the hoard and myself, was leading to dinner. I had showered and donned a particularly respectable garment; there no longer seemed to be a trail of dust following the all male entourage so I gathered they, too, had indulged in the act of bathing.
While gaining an appetite, I sat in one of the garden areas just off the restaurant, engulfed in my world of poetry. Soon after a man in a black dress shirt and white apron handed me a margarita the size of my face, the stampede of man guests passed me, single file; all waving in canon as they made their way to the restaurant’s welcoming arch.
The one at the back, the youngest, lingered a moment. I felt him watching me as I took as sip from my monster goblet.
“If only life was easier.” He grinned.
“And the margaritas were bigger.” I returned his smile without looking up from my book.
I heard his footsteps regressing back toward me. He was now directly behind my bench, leaning over the back. His blonde hair fell over his eyes like a well aged Jonathan Taylor Thomas.
“There’s a purple flower that grows around here. It’s everywhere. Yet no one seems to know what it’s called.”
“Is that so?”
“Not a single person. I’ve asked the receptionist, the servers, the bartenders. No one’s got a clue. Weird huh?”
“Wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“What a shame.” He stood up and started back to the restaurant then stopped. “I will get to the bottom of this!”
“I have no doubt.”
Dinner at Hotel Mision…
The restaurant had two occupied tables: the one fueled by testosterone, and an elderly couple who seemed to have magically appear out of nowhere, much like the hotel itself. I was sat between both.
The same apron clad waiter who had served me my gallon sized margarita approached my table.
“Buenas noches, senorita.”
“Hola, como estas?”
“Bien, bien, gracias! Et tu?” He seemed pleasantly surprised at my speaking his language, or at least attempting to.
“Muy bien, gracias.”
“Yo quiero una botella de vino tinto, por favor. Et un vaso de agua, tambien.”
Damn. I sat back in my chair, basking in my fluency.
When he returned, I ordered the fish and nibbled on tortillas and salsa, sipping wine while people watching.
The man table was loud, with many a coronas clinking and talk of fast things and their large motors. It seemed they were here for the Baja 1000. A race of sorts. My knowledge ends here. Furthering my observations, they were well on their way to finishing their meals with plans to retire to the vintage bar with its wooden chairs.
My attention turned to the server now standing beside me, talking lowly under his breath. The mysterious elderly couple, like two deer in the headlights, stared widely at him without blinking.
“Lo siento. How do you say vegetales en ingles?”
Holy crap. Had I just been asked to translate something from Spanish to English? I had literally just been asked to translate Spanish. This had arguably become the most momentous day of my life.
“Vegetables.” He repeated slowly.
“Si. Vegetables.” I smiled reassuringly.
He mouthed the word again, and rejoined the puzzled couple. I listened to him repeat the word several times to them, their dazed faces making no change. The woman looked at her husband, then at me.
“Vegetables!” I firmly stated.
Their mouths grew large in sudden comprehension. The waiter repeated the word again in attempted solidarity but lost. I shrugged my shoulders in empathy and he winked. A moment later a shot of tequila stood before me.
“Muchas gracias, bonita.” He winked again.
When my fish arrived, the men were clearing out. The blonde heartthrob was suddenly standing at my table placing a small, purple flower under my nose. It smelled oddly sweet; of desert and cool water.
“The floral enigma. In the flesh.”
“Isn’t it beautiful.”
“It is. And it’s name?”
He sighed. “First one who finds out wins?”
The restaurant emptied, and with the men, according to my server, along went my check. For at the end of my meal my bill had been paid. All the more mystery at Hotel Mision.
If more proof was needed in determining Hotel Mision’s illusive existence, it could easily be found in the lack of cell service, and although advertise, the completely non existent wifi. Hotel Mision was an impenetrable bubble of fantasy and disconnect, one that not even google could pervade. And so the name of that sweet, desert flower would forever remain unknown.
As for me, I climbed into my sumptuously large bed and watched the Mexican sun set over a ceaseless stretch of shadowy cacti, my wooden shutters creaking softly in the breeze, lulling me to sleep.