When I rent a car I typically go for the ultra-economy model, one where suspension is an optional upgrade (Who needs suspension? You want to feel the road.), two hamsters running on exercise wheels under the hood, hand crank windows, a sound system designed for the AM radio crowd and upholstery finished with burlap. Jennifer calls them tin cans.
This time I thought I would book something nicer for the long suffering Nubbie and opted for a high end European vehicle. When we got to the airport in Leon (The closest place to pick up a rental car) Hertz did the bait and switch – the only car left in the lot was a Cadillac, the preferred vehicle of narco traficantes. We left the lot fitting right in with those producing illicit pharmaceuticals here. Tinted windows, black exterior, low profile tires; an interior larger than many San Francisco studio apartments. Seats big enough to fit a hamper of laundry for a family of six. I really needed a cowboy hat and big belt buckle. Well, and some weaponry. The console was inexplicably complicated – it took us 30 minutes to figure out how to work the AC. Multi media everywhere – more screens in the vehicle interior than a multiplex cinema.
We got special treatment from the gas jockey ladies at Pemex (The Mexican oil company monopoly) who offered to check under the hood – something never done other times we have driven through the country. We were singled out by a Federal policeman at a toll plaza for an inspection to whom I hurriedly explained that the car was a rental and we were really enjoying his beautiful country.
To be fair, the vehicle actually handled well and was really good on local roads, where potholes and rough spots are common. And there was something alluring about sitting up high in a large seat surrounded by electronics that beep and glow and flicker, telling you all manner of things. And when you punched it to pass a truck uphill on a blind curve, the Escalade leapt like Captain Kirk going into hyperdrive.
We took mostly local roads – Carretera Libre – on our way to Barra de Navidad, a beach town we last visited over 30 years ago. Unlike toll roads – the faster way to get places – these are much more mixed, narrower and more local, with a lot more to see. Through an uncultivated landscape of prickly pear cactus, whitethorn acacia, mesquite and creosote. Shops, school children, half built homes, fields of corn, agave, sugar cane, strawberries under plastic. Factories in varying states of construction, locals on bikes, scooters, on foot. Men with cowboy hats, rotund skirted and sweatered old ladies with faces darkened and sun weathered like old leather handbags. Random dogs with no clear owners and cacophonous roosters with no sense that dawn has come and gone hours ago.
Overloaded pickup trucks teetering their way to market with piles of limes, oranges, pineapples, hay or sugarcane. Or sometimes people: Jennifer counted 15 in the back of one vehicle. Local buses looking tired and packed full, stopping frequently and trundling slowly up hills. Luxury long distance buses passing through like space pods with their air conditioned, video watching passengers behind tinted windows. Random potholes to keep you alert, shoulders that come and go, police driving faster than anyone else. The ubiquitous Oxxo Store, a little island of air conditioned convenience.
Plastic bags and small heaps of detritus here and there, Coca Cola signs, barb wire fences, speed bumps before, in and after leaving a town – a nice punctuation to one’s journey, impromptu setups selling chips with hot sauce, elotes, tacos, churros, stacks of chicharron (fried pig skin), and piles of limes, mangos, carrots, onions, chilies neatly displayed for sale, shrines both to the Virgin of Guadalupe and to folks didn’t make that last blind curve. All the while the Google Maps lady reading out place names in a broad Midwestern accent, mangling them thoroughly. If the Spanish language was a person, she would be indicted for crimes against humanity.
Over the Northwestern end of the Sierra Madre del Sur from the Mexican Plateau at 2,500 M to the Pacific, through an area of coniferous trees and some ranches. Down to the coast bathed in soft, warm ocean air and through banana and coconut plantations to Manzanillo, a large port city with factories, superstores slipping by. And to a delightful little hotel in Barra, full up with Mexican families – loads of children, laundry hanging everywhere – and not another foreigner in site.
Earlier this Fall, my sister Grace, her daughter Sophie, Lexie and I finally made it to Sri Lanka to spread the Little Brown Geologist’s (Grandpa G Rae) ashes on the tea estate where he grew up. Mooloya was built using elephants with topeed Englishmen at the helm at the turn of the last century.
Lexie and Liam’s great grandfather came to the country in 1916 after surviving Gallipoli in WW1 to train as a manager and stayed until 1936, when a depression induced slump in tea sales shut down many plantations. He met his wife in country (I think she had come out in the summer to meet a husband – a common practice back in the day): Dad was christened at St. Andrew’s church in Colombo (A Scottish Presbyterian mission church that is still going) and had a christening party at the Galle Face Hotel – an old colonial pile we stay at when we are in town.
The proud manager and gave us a tour of the bungalow Dad grew up in and where he stays temporarily – his family is in Colombo, several hours away. The place had a slightly disheveled frat house / summer camp feel about it. His dhoti clad assistant served us estate tea (in a pot with hot milk and hot water on the side) with biscuits and cakes. The tea was good but had been downgraded from the premium grade the estate produced when we first visited with Dad 33 years ago. Much more astringent now than it was when I visited with Mom and Dad 30+ years ago. The operation didn’t look efficient – some of the equipment in the tea factory dates from when Dad lived there; his father’s photo is still hanging on the factory office wall. Some of this is doubtless about employing locals and so a political issue – about 3,000 people live on the estate. That is a lot of votes to capture.
And then Dad’s ashes sprinkled among the tea bushes, which spread like a soft green, handmade quilt high onto the hills above, with shade trees poking up here and there. Prayers said and thoughts shared, tears welling up in our eyes; we miss the LBG. It was a tender moment.
I learned a few years ago that, after years of camping all over Northern California with the family, I was the only family member that really enjoyed the activity, the others having sacrificed comfortable weekends at home mostly to humor Dad. No matter, I have taken to driving up to the Sierras alone on Saturdays and camping overnight in the off season to get my fix.
Drive across the Central Valley, up into the foothills, past tumble down barns, houses that need a coat of paint, run down pastures. Reservoirs with bathtub rings of depletion feeding the State’s thirst, all the more critical after the recent drought.
And to a half-deserted campsite; sometimes a grizzled camp host – often a veteran who has served his country in Vietnam or Iraq – living in an RV and offering firewood at $5 a bundle. An American flag, a carefully swept piece of outdoor carpet, a patio table with umbrella and a couple of plastic garden chairs.
The intense quiet, listening to the hiss of the butane stove, birds calling to one another, the buzz of flies, the occasional car whizzing by on highway nearby. Starting a fire with one match and no paper (Was that a boy scout thing?), the smell of pine smoke, the sting in your eyes. Warmth on the knees as you huddle close to the fire as night falls and a chill sets in. A cup of tea and a book to read, a spread of stars between treetops and a bright sliver of a moon, a streaky hint of the Milky Way.
Liam is a cofounder and partner of Prism Skateboards and has been focused on marketing and sales, spending a lot of time working social media and hustling distributors. He gave up his place down the street from us with a bunch of guys (car parts in the living room, an untended garden.), and is spending a lot of time in Santa Cruz, a small beach town where the firm is located. Santa Cruz is full of surfers, students and older dudes with potbellies and ponytails riding around on beach cruiser bikes. A little Peter Pan-like.
Liam advises me on how to dress (The Dad jeans got tossed.). Smoking is part of the package (For him not me.), slim raw denim jeans with cuffs, sunglasses, the discretely tricked out Triumph 900. Like his mother he has an appreciation for order, minimalism, style and good food. His buddy discovered an amazing little restaurant in Oakland Chinatown that sells insanely tasty handmade noodles that we now frequent.
Liam and I are reading business books together, sharing insights about how to market and sell – His knowledge of social media is fluid and current, mine not so much. We go to movies every other week, usually some dark indie flick or a mindless action blockbuster.
Liam and his girlfriend Adrienne were in Kansas City with her family for Christmas where Liam learned about BBQ, commodities trading, large houses and that solid Midwestern-ness that is so emblematic of America. We really like Adrienne; she is a calming influence, stable, steady, very interested in art and puts up with my lame jokes.
Lexie’s adventure gene switched on a couple of years ago and is now working overtime. She spent the summer in Canadian Rockies working at a remote hiking lodge where she did a fair bit of rock and ice climbing. Now she is doing housekeeping at a heli-skiing lodge in BC and gets to fill in empty seats on helicopter runs a few times a week. She has bought backcountry gear so that she can also do runs directly from the lodge. She and Sophie went on from Sri Lanka to trek in Nepal with a friend of Sophie’s who is in the Peace Corps there and had a fine time, knocking off treks in 3 days that take middle aged folks five.
Lexie is conflicted over her dual citizenship: on the one hand Justin (Trudeau) is so warm and fuzzy; on the other, winter in Canada can be really, really cold. She is currently with a college roommate’s family in Saskatchewan where it is minus 40 degrees. (Fahrenheit and Centigrade meet at this figure.). She blows through town between assignments with just enough time to see us, dentists, doctors and other life maintenance errands.
As you know, I am not allowed to say anything about Nubbie; she plans to pass on from this life without ever having had a social media presence.
I found the following quotes from a couple of pillars of the Christian church, both of whom lived in times of great change and foment (Not unlike our own.). Have a fine 2018 and, whether you live near or far from California, come and visit!
Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you. – Saint Augustine 354 – 430 AD
Friendship is the source of the greatest pleasures, and without friends even the most agreeable pursuits become tedious. – Thomas Aquinas 1225 – 1274