Friday, March 4, 2011

Entropy and Hope

(The following is a chapter from my new book, tentatively titled Where Ever You Go, There You Are; Change, Loss and La Vida Loca in Puerto Vallarta.)

Yesterday, Israel and I made our way to one of our favorite haunts, Peninsula Beach, where the Pitillal River empties into the ocean. We like it there because we can bathe the dogs in the shallow river water at the same time we get to enjoy the crashing surf. Israel loads up our two camp chairs, our beach umbrella and the cooler, and we make our way to a spit of sand where the river snakes around on its way to the sea.

Sadly, our beach gear has deteriorated at what feels like warp speed – paralleling our swiftly ending idylls together in Mexico. The canvas on the chairs has grown threadbare to the point where Israel sat down recently, and the seat gave way, his butt hitting the sand. Yesterday, he pulled our beach umbrella out of its sleeve and the whole thing came apart, with the nylon material tearing loose from the frame and flapping ridiculously in the stiff ocean breeze. I said, “Israel, it’s trash. Let’s just throw it away.” But Israel is like a dog with a bone when it comes to salvaging things that I would classify as "basura.” He’s resourceful in the way of someone who has had to scrounge and make do for most of his life. His room in Pitillal is crammed with funky finds harvested from the beach or fished out of trash barrels: broken fans, toaster ovens, old TV’s, still serviceable clothing and shoes – all of which he plans to clean, repair and sell at the flea market.

Mexicans are accustomed to extending the life of everything, from old appliances to junker cars. There really is no such thing as refuse in Mexico. Men with backpacks root through icky trash bags looking for aluminum cans and old beer bottles to barter at the recycler. In Guadalajara, we ran across a street vender selling used clothing as new, complete with cardboard tags stapled to the pockets. Look closer and there was the Goodwill pricetag still attached. What we consumer Americans might consign to a dumpster, working class Mexicans see as currency for survival -- or a retail opportunity. I love that about Mexicans. They don’t waste anything.

But, back to the umbrella situation. Israel pulled a plastic bag out of the sand, tore it into strips and began to perform triage on the pathetic beach umbrella. Little by little, he re-attached the nylon skin to the ribs. Then, as per our beach routine, he got down on hands and knees, dug a hole and planted the umbrella. I spread our faded beach towels on the two chairs and positioned the cooler between us. The dogs frolicked back and forth between the beach and the river, careful not to stray too far from the compass point of our dilapidated little outpost on the ocean prairie.

Paul Simon once wrote that everything put together sooner or later falls apart. Since coming to Mexico a mere two years ago, I’ve seen that process playing out not only in the disintegration of our beach furniture, but in the landmarks and topography of the enchanted bubble that is our Vallarta. When we first came to Peninsula Beach, the river still ran wild between the towering high rises. Mexican families congregated on the high dunes, while kids and dogs threw themselves into the crazy confluence of river and ocean. Bathers reveled in the fast current and chaotic surf. Once we watched a man reach into the water and pull out a large fish with his bare hands -- which he and his family proceeded to cook for dinner over a wood fire. Israel and I would wade out to where the ocean and river collided, giggling like children as the waves tried to knock us off our feet. Israel held up pieces of tortilla for the seagulls and laughed his high-pitched Amadeus laugh when they snatched the bread from his fingers. One night last year during a full moon, we visited the beach with my dog Bo, and watched breathlessly as the domed silhouette of a sea turtle silently made her way up the mouth of the river, searching for a place to lay her eggs. Israel tried to collapse the sand to help her, but the current was too strong. She slipped beneath the water and returned to the sea.

Who could have foreseen that in the space of a year, such experiences would grow extinct? The developers have succeeded in taming the Pitillal River with a series of jetties, sandbag walls and artificial dunes. The river has been reduced to a benign trickle, a capillary of shallow water flowing parallel to the beach, as ho-hum as the Lazy River ride at an urban water park.

I try not to get depressed about change. To go with the flow, as it were. But I grieve with each extinction – the old pier in Olas Altas, the Page in the Sun bookstore, even our favorite limoncillo plant in Colonia Villa Los Flores – we used to cut the leaves for tea. It’s been decimated by a cement wall. The other day I was walking the dogs among the condos in my neighborhood and came upon the dismembered remains of a large banyan tree, lying in chunks in a parking space. I felt like someone had died. It’s such a balancing act, this process of making peace with loss, while trusting that new sources of love and wonder will come to fill the void.

Israel, on the other hand, adapts. Yesterday, during one of our stops on the way to the beach, he found two pristine kitchen tiles at the side of the road which he studied for an hour, excited about using them for an art project. He placed them on the dashboard of the van as we exited the beach parking area. As I made a sweeping left turn onto the road into Fluvial, the tiles slid across the dash and flew out the passenger-side window. I heard them shatter as they hit the pavement. “What was that?” I said, not having seen it. “Eet’s nawtheen,” he said, not even bothering a backward glance. “Just keep going,” he said. I pressed him until he told me it was his art project. “Ohh, I’m sorry Israel.” “Eet’s okay,” he said. “Eet’s always best to keep going. Dun’t slow down. Just keep going ahead.”

And that, I’ve decided, is what one must do to stay positive in a present that’s pulling away from us like a receding tide, even as we’re still splashing in the water merged with the moment. When I leave Mexico, Israel will take possession of the chairs, the umbrella and all the fading, physical souvenirs of our friendship. He’ll sit down with needle and thread and carefully mend the damaged camp chair, reinforce the seams of the stuff sacks, stitch everything back together in an effort to breathe a second life into them. Just like his dream of my return, which he’s confident will happen. God has told him it is so.


  1. Can't wait to read the whole book. Lovely how you've taken the mundane of change and made it powerful in the context of your life.