Mexicans like their fiestas.
The biggest is September’s Dia de la Independencia–a celebration of the morning centuries back when an angry Mexican priest rang his pueblo’s church bells, waking everyone up to deliver the fateful speech that sparked the revolutionary war against the colony’s governing Spanish oligarchs.
In my 30’s I lived for a few years in Zacatecas, a Mexican city high up in the Sierra Madres, not far from Padre Hidalgo and his bells, and every September 16 on its anniversary the place would pretty much go nuts.
My first year I had no sense of the scope of it. I strolled down to the main square curious about what was going on, and maybe a half hour later wound up jammed against a stone wall there, as burning shards of fireworks rained on a crowd of screaming, scattering locals. I was wearing a giant sombrero (someone must’ve handed it to me, as part of the general festivities), and its ridiculously oversize floppy brim shielded me, as well as two middle-aged senoras I’d never met before–from the burning shrapnel. Terror and joy–the three of us caught eyes as the ashes and embers hit the cobblestones all around us and laughed.
Five days before the big event the following year, Alex–a Canadian buddy who was down visiting–and I hopped on the bus for Guadelajara. We had a mutual Mexican friend Claudio who lived there. Claudio was about to head out to the west pacific coast along with a dozen or so of his own friends, guys and girls, all from Guadelajara. We would join them there and drive out to spend five days out on a beach that one of them owned. In Mexico you can own beaches apparently.
The northwest coast of Michoacan State is beautiful. Driving west a large paved highway takes you up and over some high desert volcanic mountains before descending back into lush green tropical slopes on the other side.
“Ahi ahi ahi!” yelled Identical Twin #1 at Identical Twin #2 behind the wheel. He was pointing at a dirt road, but struggling to be heard over the car stereo blasting Mike Laure (pronounced Mee-kay Louw-ray), 1940’s era cumbia tunes about how the avocado might run out, or the watermelon might run out, but la cosecha de mujeres–the reaping of women–well that never ever stops.
Twin #2 braked hard then edged us one tire at a time off the highway down into a orange dirt road heading off into the coastal rainforest. A caravan of cars with the others followed behind. And then we bounced through potholes and swerved through giant trees for miles and miles. Huge trees these were, with a canopy of leaves high above, the occasional prehistoric-sized plant with leaves longer than myself, and an abundance of wild fruit trees, and I believed that if I timed it just right–if the twins weren’t quite so intent on arriving wherever we were headed, regardless of ditches and potholes–I could have reached through the open window mid-bounce and returned with a fat mango in my fist.
The road dead-ended. The landing party leaped out and ran ahead with woops. A sliver of bright yellow lay visible up there. Alex and I were the only newcomers here–these were childhood friends of Claudio, and everyone had been coming here for years now. We emerged behind them, leaving mottled jungle shadows to find ourselves beneath a blazing sun on a crystalline beach, staring into a blue sky that might surely stretched to faraway lands (Macao, Ceylon, Siam!). A few hundred metres to either side of us this glorious horizon ran aground, smashing against some indomitable cliffs and their over-spilling jungle trees. And thus the whole place was sealed off; liked we’d stumbled upon a gateway to dreams, a land to ourselves.
The twins’ family had owned it for generations. Just back of the hot sand in the shade stood the one-floor cabins, the windowless shacks and some palapas–those wall-less palm-frond structures that line every tropical coastline the world over–that the family maintained.
But it was the beach that called me. After a year of black smoke and buses, cobblestones and church bells, crammed town squares and markets spilling over with noise, it was glorious to find yourself in some part of the universe that more or less just emptiness. A million crystals of sand, each with a facet silently mirroring that terrible sun my way, and some small almost non-existent waves, breaking never more than one at a time. Only a single wooden chair broke the spell: a speck against the blue. And when Alex and I reached it we found a pack of cigaretts, a pair of sunglasses and a single gentleman’s sunhat placed lovingly upon it–waiting for a favorite uncle who would never return.
Tables and chairs had appeared. Beers, limes and tequilas. Coolers full of food and solid slabs of ice. All of it offered to us with huge smiles. As long-distance tagalongs, Alex and I had brought nothing but our backpacks and nothing to contribute except a single battered guitar.
It didn’t matter who knew who though. There was swimming, and bonfires. And the lone guitar was a hit. Someone always knew the three chords necessary as the rest bawled out some terrible mexican song or other:
Y volver volver.. a tus brazos otra vez…!!
More typically yet, our new friends liked to sing the songs of Mana–a band that had come out of Guadelajara a decade or two prior, which to my perhaps hypercritical ear sounded preposterously close to The Police–if they’d had an alternate Planet of the Apes-style existence, that is, living and writing all their songs in Mexico.
But everything was a joy. And there was that same bond between Claudio and his childhood friends that I’d often seen with other Mexican teens and twenty-something: always quick to be arm in arm, terrible songs or no, quick to help each other. A kind of bond that easily transcended gender barriers too, as well as any add-on worries about displays of male tenderness; and it was a common sight to see collections of guys and girls with a leg or an arm draped across one another , and someone perhaps absent-mindedly playing with another’s mop of black hair.
People and place: I couldn’t have thought it more beautiful.
And I soon realized that the most beautiful part was a girl named Paula.
It wasn’t about her features and whatnot–though she was tall and moved in ways that invited the corners of your eyes. No, what was most striking was how Paula, without demanding attention for it, was very alive. She noticed things. Before you realized that a bird had just called, she’d already turned and was looking for it. If the fire was warm on her skin, she felt it and went silent as she wriggled her toes. If rain was falling–every afternoon it poured for an hour or so–Paula was usually the first to leave the palapa and and remind herself of warm rain on her face and bare shoulders. And if we were all out in the water swimming about and dunking each other–well I guess Paula didn’t like swimming because you’d eventually catch sight of a small figure way up the beach, bending over to look at some beautiful rock or other. And then suddenly you’d want to be over there too, to see whatever it was she was seeing.
And most importantly when someone’s alive and noticing the world, you pretty much want them to notice you too.
Well there was that guitar. And I’d pretty much grown up playing guitars. So whenever Paula was within earshot, I grabbed it: the best songs–not the idle strumming and those mexican tunes, but intricate fingerpicky stuff, fast and complicated, where a thumb might send a bassline plunging while a pair of fingers danced a melody the other way. Or slow and bluesy, with bent notes in just the right places. The kind of playing that people heard and would sometimes say “wow, he can play.”
Not Paula. She was more interested in on a chess board, or a something funny someone had just said, or a riddle someone had just invented. Or she would simply leave and go off in search for the waterfall that was alleged to exist somewhere nearby.
Day 3, I gave up. I went back to swimming in the ocean. Lolling about in hammocks. Drinking my beers. Nursing my ego.
Our last day was September 15 and we woke to the dull thumps of distant fireworks from a fishing village, a few miles south, celebrating Independence Day, 8am and all.
Someone found the waterfall. Or one of the twins who’d known all along finally led us there. It was maybe 4 feet high, enough that if you swam directly beneath you could lose yourself in the roar and the crush of gallons of water smashing your shoulders. And we flopped about in the pools at its base, cooling ourselves, playing yet more riddles. Mexicans love riddles.
On the beach a good one got carved into the sand, and even as the afternoon rain broke and began to soak us no one left until it was solved. (A great one in fact. I’ll post it here soon). In the downpour we scaled the bottom edge of the cliff at the sound end, reached a layer of clay, and those above threw handfuls to those below–until everyone had enough to be coated top to bottom, like a dozen cackling mudpeople. And when we dove en masse into the ocean and the waves washed us clean, there were peals of delight at the now eel-slippery smoothness of our legs and faces and arms; your arm felt like the smooth skin of snakesnake, your cheek felt as if it wasn’t even you.
We ate our meals till we were stuffed. We drank until some of us were staggering. And anything that had been squirrelled away–a bottle of wine, a fire-stick, a mask, a sombrero or two–all of it emerged. And by now we’d all been on this beach long enough together that laughing aplenty was had in recounting stories of these days alone.
Recuerdas a Jaime, cuando dijo…
When full darkness set in, fireworks appeared: rockets and firebombs whistling up into the sky, never reaching the top but always exploding into hails of burning shrapnel, arcing down into the ocean before our feet, flickering light and sudden shadows on our cackling faces.
But my favorite moment was this. It was late. Nearly morning now. Most were either asleep in one of the cabins, passed out in a hammock, or possibly off in one of the few guy-girl pairs that might have gone quietly astray into some secluded spot in the blackness of the beach. Just four were left, staring into a bonfire, brought together less by cameraderie–although I felt like we were all one group now–and more by a desire to not have this day end just yet, like random moths gathered to the only light within miles. There was little left to say and no one was trying to say it. And for me it was enough to follow the orange embers that emerged each time the wood cracked.
Paula was there. “I don’t know why,” she said, breaking the silence but still staring into the fire as were the rest of us. “No se por que.. but right now I want to cry.”
She was huddled under a blanket, and I became aware that for the first time since we’d arrived on this beach five days back, it had become cold.
She looked at me, as if seeing me for the first time. “You play,” she said, and gestured toward the guitar off in the shadows. “Please,” she said. “Play something to make us cry.”
Toque algo para hacernos llorar…
Quite often what strikes me most is someone’s tone of voice. There was a matter-of-factness, as if Paula was asking me to pass the salt for the tequila–but also something as if whatever she’d just asked for was her suddenly-realized, deepest desire.
“Llorar?” I said meekly.
I knew even then that there’s times when beautiful things make you feel sad. Like days on deserted Mexican beaches. Or when a girl you have a crush on locks eyes with you even for a moment, pins you to a moment like a butterfly on a wall, and suddenly you’re alive and right here. And there was something sad about it. And I’d long ago got to figuring eventually that the sadness has to do with some subconscious prescience that when I die moments like these will be exactly what I’ll miss from this vast and crazy world.
And I knew too that there can be something good about sadness. Like a good heartbreak–you feel that pain inside you and realize suddenly that you’re not in fact numb to the outside world after all–that in fact it can breach all skin and barriers and emerge from the cracks inside your chest, like it or not. I’ve had a good few laughs that way…
I came back with the guitar, and everyone was still staring at that fire.
But I’d somehow never realized that music could have anything to do with all that. Sounds, eardrums, noises. Or that someone could think of this endeavour that I had spent so much time obsessed with–the harmonies and scales and arpeggios and chords, the keys, rhythms, decades of practicing–was simply a convenient tool to be used to provoke some necessary feeling within.
No. Music was sound. And sound was all ‘out here’, in the small crashing waves, or the breeze through the palm fronds, the cracking of that splitting wood. And music was usually way up there, on some stage with its amplifiers. Or I suppose, if it was a certain kind of music, with a certain kind of groove, then it truly took place on a dancefloor. Or in your head–lyrical ideas, clevernesses, maybe even thoughts about a tricky way someone had just changed a key. Jazz, for example, never a big favorite of mine back then, had always played itself out up there someplace inside my brain.
Never in the heart…
Well I’d like to wind up this story and say that I began to play and out came something so gut-wrenchingly beautiful it left everyone a blubbering mess.
Nope. But I can say this…
I changed later on. I kept hearing those words of hers and the way she’d said them. And slowly I changed what ‘good music’ meant. And it was no longer about proficiency, or cleverness, or innovation–though I still respect those things. And bands that I thought were awesome, somehow paled when I realized they had never struck me any deeper than my thoughts.
And I noticed things: the more I cared about what others were thinking of me—”Am I a good guitar player?”–the more people were staring at their own thoughts about whether or not I was a ‘good guitar player’ or not. And the less moved either of was.
And I noticed that when any person–a student at school say–simply sang a song quite innocently and free from those add-on worries, who might barely be able to strum her guitar even, but who sang each note in easy deference to… something… some sort of inner playful sense of ‘well this is how the song goes so this is how I’ll sing it’, perhaps, the more something in me responded.
And I even started to enjoy the lack of music, especially when it happened within music itself. And by that I mean the silences between notes, or that split second after a song has ended just before the applause begins, or best of all when a band in a bar starts playing so sparsely that a hushed of the crowd and the barely audible whirrs and ambient clinks of the room itself, it all somehow enters that song–and place and people become one. And I saw how people felt moved by these things too.
And I began to trust that when something inside whispers that I should play a certain note, or stop playing entirely, to pluck hard or softly, neverminding how I believed it should be done, it is always mine not to ask why.
Hell I even started liking Mexican music.
And country. Epiphanies are dangerous things.
But what else can you do when someone’s doing their thing on a stage inside your very heart?
And I feel increasingly sure that if I play music from someplace deep inside like that–just as someone else might listen to birdsongs with all they have–someday on perhaps another deserted beach I’ll be given a second chance to make somebody cry.