I wake up in the morning and wander on to the terrace to watch the fishing boats heading home after a night on the ocean. As I put a pot of tea on, birds start singing in the palms and tamarinds all around me. I lie in my hammock, watching the sunrise and marveling that the only thing I have to worry about today is what to eat and when to go to the beach.
I eat a breakfast of a vegetable omelet topped by a fresh avocado so tasty, its California cousin seems like a soggy imitation. Vegetables here have a flavor like vegetables in India do, perhaps because they are not bred on too much water and fertilizer. I think of the bloated and bland things back in the United States, and I am glad I am here.
I read and write for a while and then I head to the beach. A few Mexican kids are frolicking in the water, but otherwise, the sand is all mine. I sit at a table under a thatch roof and put sunscreen on. Then, leaving my backpack on a chair, I venture into the water. The senora, who is the proprietor of the restaurant, will keep an eye on my stuff, I am sure.
What is surprising is how safe everything is here. We leave our doors and window open all night. We travel from one town to another, through bus stations that are clean and organized, with paid, spotless toilets equipped with paper, soap, and towels. IDs are checked in transit; videos are taken to ensure security. There are no signs of drug cartels or any other crime anywhere. Is the United States media deliberately hyping Mexican violence, I wonder?
At this beach on the Michoacan coast, the bay curves gently so the waves are small. Still, I did not venture into the ocean alone at first. But then muscle memory kicked in, from years of living in Hawaii and New Zealand, I suppose, and now I am a mermaid, floating on water.
I put my swim cap and goggles on and dunk my head into the water to see a million starfish. The water is so clear that I stretch my arm to grasp them, only to realize that they are far away, resting on the ocean bed.
The sea is like a womb, comforting and rollicking. I swim on my stomach and then on my back, feeling the kind of contentment I have not experienced in a long time. I wonder, could I just stay here forever, hiding from the world? So many Americans do just that, some receiving social security checks, others running from the law. Still others, simply running away from life’s demands.
The house we are renting is owned by a Mexican woman I will call Delia, a short, stocky, middle aged woman with an attitude. I like Delia precisely because she has an attitude; because she resents us for staying in her palatial house overlooking the ocean while she herself has to live in an adobe hut beside the only laundry in town which she runs. She needs our income and dislikes us for it. What could be more natural?
Delia has seven children, of which four are girls. One is married to a tall, French man with a gorgeous face. He is a surfer, I learn, and has been living here for years, producing three children with the young lass. I wonder about the Mexican mystique, which has drawn these white men from France and America to the local women, with whom they have created beautiful, half-breed kids. But then again I am not surprised. They don’t want to put up with a gringa’s demands, I suppose. Or perhaps they relish the simplicity of life here. And who could blame them?
I am glad I don’t appear like a gringa; that I blend in among the locals with my brown skin and universal face. That way, I don’t elicit any special attention. I run on the beach in my bikini, and the eyes of the soldiers on guard linger on me only a second longer, perhaps because I am not as heavily built as the locals or perhaps because I am running at all, which Mexican women do not do. But then the soldiers look away, convinced I am a Latina.
America is never far away from anyone’s consciousness here; almost everyone has some personal connection to it. One of Delia’s daughters is visiting from Modesto, California, I learn. I wonder if she might be able to help Delia get to the United States until I discover that that she has been staying there illegally.
“How will she get back to the United States?” I ask.
“Maybe she will not,” Delia says.
“But what about her husband?” I say.
“Maybe he will come back too,” she replies.
Still, Delia is perhaps better off than most Mexicans. She dresses in style. She owns houses.
She runs her business. She is perhaps the glue that holds the family together. In a way, I envy her tightly knit clan.
On the bus, a young girl sits next to me. She is a mother of two, I soon discover. Her husband went to the United States, she tells me, but within days, returned home. “They captured him and gave him a bus ticket all the way to our village,” she says, confirming a news item I had heard on National Public Radio.
Another village woman, Ana, lived illegally in San Mateo for four years, cleaning rooms at a motel. Her rivals in the 1980s were the Japanese. “Japanese are taking over California,” she says. The Japanese threat never quite materialized, I assure her, in fact, it is China that is taking over the world. But she already knows that because everything sold in the store here is made in China.
I give a yoga class on the terrace to the local women. They are starved for knowledge, for stimulation, I discover. Ana is a born poet who makes up funny little rhymes about her husband who left her for another woman; Sarah is a natural athlete who dreams of leaving her husband. These women never had the opportunities I had, yet I cannot say that my life is that much happier than theirs.
I dream of being in their paradise; they dream of being in mine.
The only difference, I suppose, is that I have a choice, and they don’t. But then again, do I really have a choice?
Later, as we eat the food they have made, my gringa friend tells us the story of Madame Butterfly. She was a Japanese woman who fell in love with an American in the nineteenth century, she says. The two married and had a son. The American left, promising to return. Madame Butterfly watched the ships sailing in the ocean every day, longing for her American.
He did eventually return. But he had an American wife with him. All he wanted was his son back.
Grief-stricken, Madame Butterfly committed hara-kiri.
“That Madame Butterfly was a fool, my mother always told me,” my friend says. “Get an education instead, she told me.”
We all stare at the ships in the distance. Education or not, we all are Madame Butterfly, we realize; we all dream of what we do not have.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visitwww.saritasarvate.com