From WTP Vol. VI #6
By Dian Parker
There is only one road that runs the full length of the Baja peninsula in Mexico. It’s never more than two lanes wide and it’s an obstacle course of corduroy ridges and potholes. Dangerous if you’re riding a motorcycle. Summer, Baja, Highway 1 and motorcycles definitely don’t mix.
I get sick the second week of the trip while eating enchiladas de enferma. I spend the next three days in a heat box of a motel in Guerrero Negro, throwing up and trying to sleep with the insects. Eric makes frequent trips to the shop around the corner for Kearn’s peach juice, jugo de dranzo, the only thing I can stomach. The juice is cold (a rare occurrence in Baja) and eases my vise grip headaches for only half an hour.
When I feel well enough to travel again, Eric decides to head for a destination where we’ll get a break from cactus and dust. He knows of an oasis town in the middle of Baja, tucked in the center of a large date grove with a river flowing through it. The date trees are supposed to be plentiful and green (another rare occurrence). Everything else is brown for a thousand miles. So we get back on the motorcycle and push south. I’m constantly dizzy and near collapse from the heat. We don’t wear helmets because there’s no law about it. Usually I love the wind blowing through my hair as I ride, but now I wind a scarf around my head and neck, looking just like the college photograph of my mom.
We leave Guerrero Negro at six in the morning and by eight the heat is already splitting us open. Eric stops at every village along the way so we can get out of the white, searing sun. At four that afternoon we finally limp into San Ignatio. I let out a laugh that rocks the bike and shout into the back of Eric’s head, “Green!”
At the riverbank, we tear off our clothes and dive in. The river is warm but deliciously wet. I had assumed it would be cold like the rivers in America. I float on my back with my eyes closed, imagining the rain and flowers I left behind. I’ve been hallucinating for two weeks already, seeing mirages from the motorcycle. It’s the heat and I am pregnant. But I don’t know that yet. Eric and I met less than a month ago.
We swim for an hour, playing tag and diving, slithering through the reeds and brown water. It’s a relief to be in saltless, sweet water. I force myself not to drink. We pretend to be the brown dive-bombing pelicans that we had seen in San Luis Obispo. I love the low flying, prehistoric squadrons; their wings just brushing the tips of the waves.
At the far side of town, we find a room with two single beds that we push together. It has a veranda with two broken plastic chairs. There is even a fan, our first, which keeps the flies from sticking to the walls and dries the sweat as we sleep. Our second night, even with the fan, the heat is so bad we take one of the mattresses out onto the veranda and sleep under the clear sky. Nights with a cacophony of stars. Every night and every single day is clear. We are always looking for shade.
We stay in San Ignatio for one week. The men sit in the village square all day smoking and talking. Every time we ride by on the motorcycle they wave and shout “Arriba!” Sometimes we stop and Eric talks politics and weather with the men while I play with the children. There are never any women hanging around. The kids understand my broken Spanish and giggle at my phrasing, helping me to get it right. Thankfully Eric speaks Spanish. When we take pictures with my Instamatic, everyone in the square runs over and stands on the stone benches or kneels down in front offering big smiles, the old men showing toothless grins. Any women that pass by eye us with suspicion.
Every day we spend at the river, the Candeleria, swimming, washing our clothes with a coarse blue bar of Fabone and drinking mineral water con gas. I’m feeling the best since coming onto the peninsula. My headaches are gone and if I stay out of the sun by sitting under the trees in the town square or in the river afternoons, I am fine.
But the nights are torture.
Around midnight, every night, the noseeums appear. They are smaller than mosquitoes and twice as nasty. They get in your hair and bite, I swear, five bites per bug. By the third night, unable to stand it any longer, we walk to the river in the middle of the night. We can’t see anything. There are no streetlights or house lights. Everything is dark. We swim and lay on the rocky banks for the rest of the night. The water is warm and black and we don’t frolic. I’m concerned about eels and scorpions.
I tell Eric I want to turn back, that eight hundred more miles of desert summer sun is just too much for me. Every day it’s over one hundred degrees. It’s insane traveling down Baja at this time of year on a motorcycle. “No wonder we never see any tourists!” I yell at Eric.
I am learning, fast, that he never turns back.
“Look, you’re still feeling weak from la tourista. Another five days in San Ignatio and you’ll feel differently. We’ll go down to La Paz and over to the mainland to Guadalajara to their amazing street markets. I’ll buy you huaraches, a Mexican blouse and flowers for your hair. It’ll be a lot different from the desert.”
That’s the pull. Just get to La Paz, take the ferry to Puerto Vallarta, eat salads in cool restaurants, drink banana daiquiris sitting in the pool at the bar in fancy hotels during happy hour, see the jungles with Tarzan vines and wild parrots whizzing overhead in bright reds and green. Every night we have the same discussion. He keeps insisting that a few more days here and I’ll feel differently about going on.
One morning at dawn, we walk back to town after swimming all night. As usual I’m exhausted and now I have to face another long hot day with no relief. We come to the one hotel in town that is, of course at this time of year, empty. The front door is open so we go in and ring the bell on the desk. It’s five in the morning. A sleepy Mexican emerges from the back room and Eric asks if we can get some coffee. Coffee in Baja means Nescafe, instant mud. They love their Nescafe and always present it to us as if it were the finest French espresso. I hate the taste but this morning I’m desperate.
“Que hacemos para estos noseeums. No podemos dormir. Es muy mal,” Eric tells the man about not sleeping because of the bugs.
“Noseeums. Ha, ha! Para los Mexicanos no hay problema pero los turistas hay una gran problema!”
Needless to say, I’m pissed off. There’s no end to our discomfort but the Mexicans aren’t bothered by anything. Not by the heat, the endless old, gummy frijoles and chalky tortillas, nor the billions of tiny black gnats. The noseeums especially love my nose hair.
“Vicksees Vapos Rubos. Es el major!” the guy proudly announces.
When the one shop in town opens, we buy a jar of Vicks VapoRub and that night we glob it over every bare area of our bodies, including in our hair. The smell is borderline bearable and we sleep until the Vicks wears off. The noseeums attack and we coat ourselves again with the Vicks. All night long. By sunrise the jar is empty. We go back to the shop and buy the rest of the Vicksees Vapos Rubos, all six jars.
By now, Raiel, who works in the shop, is our good friend. He and Eric drink Cerveza after the shop closes while I play with the kids in the square. Raiel tells us about the best restaurant in Baja, Maria’s. “In tourista time, always full! Only seafood. Maria cook everything! Calamar, langosta, camarón y abalone! Nothing better, good cooking abalone. Go on moto. Out San Ignatio, left, only two and one half kilometro. On big road left. Take you not ten minute. You no choice. Best seafood in Baja!”
That night we get on the motorcycle to go to the restaurant. It is hot. Eric wears jeans, sandals and a tee shirt. I have on a cotton dress and clogs. Usually we wear gloves and shoes, a hat and scarf, but tonight we’re only going two and a half kilometers and the wind will feel wonderful in our hair. We even had a shower in the main house and we have no dust, no Vicks VapoRub and no dirty river hair. The shower was only a trickle but it was clear and cool.
To get on the main road we have to go down dirt roads, around the town square, past Raiel’s shop, down a paved road past the Nescafe hotel and over the little stone bridge of the Candeleria. We had walked that route at night five times by now.
Before we get to the paved road, we come upon a crowd of villagers. They are all staring at something in the road. Everyone is talking excitedly. When they hear the motorcycle, they set up a barricade with their bodies across the road so we can’t get past. Everyone is shouting, flapping their arms and jumping up and down.
Eric shuts off the motorcycle. The crowd falls instantly silent. The silence is startling. An old woman pushes towards us. She puts her hand on Eric’s hand wrapped around the motorcycle handle. “Apurate! Apurate! Quiebrala con su moto. Matala! Usa su moto!”
She talks fast and furious and I can only understand two words—moto which is their word for motorcycle and apurate, which means kill. Eric twists around and tells me they want us to kill it. To run over it with the motorcycle. He doesn’t know what they want us to kill.
Silently, like a wave of heat, the crowd backs up and divides into two camps. They look down and then back at us. Their eyes are filled with fear and desperation. In the center of the dirt road is the focus of their attention.
It is a tarantula. It is walking in the middle of the dusty road all alone. It is moving slowly but it is definitely walking. It is furry, large and extremely beautiful. I had seen pictures in books of tarantulas but this is different. It is brown and black with shocks of orange and thick furry hair. Its legs have bright red markings. Its size is ominous. I never imagined they could be so huge. It looks larger than my hand with my fingers outstretched. I want to pet it. The tarantula is totally stunning.
“MATALA! Matala o matara nostoros ninos!”
I had forgotten about the people in the silence. But now they are screaming again, this time pleading for us to kill the tarantula before it kills their children. First they appeal to us and then they turn and spit at the spider. Back and forth they plead and spit. During this uproar, the tarantula continues its journey across the road one leg at a time, lifting its furry thighs and placing the tips gently into the dirt. It moves like a ballet dancer. Elegantly. I wonder where it is going and if it hears the clamor of the crowd as loud as I do.
Eric says, “I don’t know what to do. They won’t let us pass. I don’t want to kill it but the crowd’s gone strange.” He looks frightened.
“Well you can bet your life I’m not having anything to do with it. If you’re going to do it, I’m getting off.” I slide off the seat and whisper, “Eric, please don’t.”
I step back from the crowd. They are in a frenzy. They’re bumping into each other, spitting, yelling, pointing at the tarantula, pointing at Eric. They take no notice of me.
“MATALA! MATALA! Kill! Kill!”
I can’t take my eyes off the tarantula. It is majestic, stepping in slow motion while the crowd bounces up and down. The contrast makes the whole scene surreal. I look at Eric. He is staring down at the spider.
Stranded minutes pass. Finally Eric backs up the motorcycle and angles the front wheel at the tarantula. The crowd cheers. My heart feels like it’s coming out of my ears. Eric gives a push with his feet and lurches the bike forward. He misses.
The swarm tightens, keeping the matador and his target surrounded. They begin to chant, pulsing toward Eric and rocking forward, “OTRE VEZ! OTRE VEZ! OTRE VEZ!” Eric quickly looks at me. I shake my head no. He looks at the crowd. They are wild with excitement. He looks back at the tarantula. It is still moving in the same direction. It has never stopped walking across the road. Maybe going home.
For the second time Eric backs up the motorcycle and resighting the tarantula, pushes the bike forward. I cover my eyes. I hear the crowd cheer, one long cry of triumph. I look down and hope that it’s not true. But there is the tarantula, squashed flat. There is no blood.
I can’t see Eric. I am left standing alone while the crowd swarms around him like noseeums, covering and sticking to him like Vicks VapoRub. Old men slap his back, children stroke his moto lovingly, and the women cry and clap their hands. Their children are safe once again.
An old man comes running down the road with a can and the crowd parts for him to get through. He dumps the contents of the can onto the flattened tarantula. I can smell the gasoline as another old man motions for the crowd to get back. The wave recedes. He lights a match and throws it into the damp dust. Flames shoot upward with a burst. Another cheer erupts. We all stand and watch the tarantula burn.
“Heroe! Nosotros Heroe! El salvo el dia! El salvo nosotros ninos!”
They continue to surround Eric, touching him. Eric motions impatiently for me to get on the bike. He starts the motor and finally the crowd breaks open for us to pass. We take off down the dirt road leaving the crowd dancing and chanting. Now they can have their celebration, the Fiesta of the Spider, and dance the tarantella.
As we slink out of town, I hug Eric’s waist and bury my face in his back. I can feel his breath in short, irregular gasps. I am finally cold, shivering in Baja’s heat, goose bumps and sweat. He says, “I shouldn’t have done it” and I say nothing. We cross the river that looks menacing and black. The sky is black, the road black, the world gone black. At the main road we turn left toward the restaurant. I am no longer hungry but I never want to go back to that village again. We pass a Pemex gas station just as a large gasoline truck pulls out in front of us. There are no other cars on the road. Eric has to put on the brakes hard to avoid hitting the truck. I lift my head and look at the road in front of us. It is covered with streaks of gasoline. Then the bike spins.
It happens so fast that I have no time to think. The motorcycle dumps onto its side and slides down the road, smooth as ice. We are both thrown off to the right, Eric falling in front of me. I slide along next to the bike at the same speed. I arch off my side with all my weight pressed into the right heel of my clog. My dress is up around my waist and I feel gravel biting into my right thigh. When I finally stop sliding I lie on the side of road, afraid to move. I don’t think of the life growing inside of me because I don’t know that yet.
Eric bends over me and asks if I’ve been hurt. The palms of his hands are covered with blood. I don’t know if I am, only this terrible stinging in my thigh and why is my skirt up around my waist in the middle of the road? I quickly pull it down. I see Eric’s right foot in his sandal is torn up and also covered with blood. Now there’s blood, I think to myself. He looks bad. I try to stand up but my legs are shaking too much.
“We’ve got to get the bike out of the road, Eric.”
The motorcycle is lying on its side. The right hand mirror has broken off and the tailpipe has a large dent. When he lifts the bike, I can see the case guard is smashed. He pushes the bike over to me and says, “Get on and let’s get to the café.”
“No, I can’t get back on the bike. I just can’t right now.”
Eric explains it’s like riding a horse, once you’re thrown, best to get right back on if you don’t want a life of trauma around horses or motorcycles. At this point, I don’t care.
“I’ll drive real slow. The café is only up the road.”
We fumble around in the dark and finally find the mirror. He drives real slow, like he said. We find the gravel drive and climb up a short slope and pull onto soft ground at the back of the house. He turns off the motor. There is a Mexican family eating dinner at a picnic table—four adults, six children, and two dogs begging at their feet. They all turn in unison and stare at us in silence.
“Es este restaurante de Maria?” Eric asks.
Everyone at the table bursts into laughter. They laugh, and laugh. And laugh. We stare and wait. There is so much I don’t understand. The father finally stops laughing enough to tell us Maria’s is up the road one half kilometer. This is their backyard and did we want to have dinner with them instead? Eric tells them about Raiel in San Ignatio and muchos gracias but we have our hearts set on langosta. I feel like I’m going to vomit.
“Si, si. No problema. Parece qui restaurant! Ha, ha!”
Eric starts up the motor and yells, “Buenos Nochos!” and everyone waves. Then we get stuck. The motorcycle won’t budge. Gravel kicks up around the back wheel every time we try to go forward, spewing stones into the family’s dinner. The whole family jumps up and runs over to help. The dogs are barking frantically and the children are yelling. I get off the bike and wonder if anyone has noticed all our blood.
Eric and the men push the bike out of the sand. Everyone cheers and the dogs nip at our heels. Another cause for a fiesta. Eric yells “Gracia!” and we get the hell out of there.
In the café’s bathroom, we check each other’s wounds and we’re okay; nothing deep enough to need stitches. We wash out all the gravel and go sit out under the cabaña of the restaurant. The air is still hot but there’s a slight breeze from the South and it is refreshing. Only one other table is occupied. A tourist couple is drinking Superior and eating abalone. The sight of it makes me feel sick. Eric and I stare at one another and I can see he is shaking. I hold his hand on top of the table.
“I shouldn’t have killed the tarantula.”
“I know. I know.”
We order two Cervezas and then another round. Even after two beers I don’t feel a thing so we order two more. I feel numb and utterly exhausted. I start to cry.
“We should have refused. It was totally wrong. Terrible.”
Eric tells me we couldn’t have refused, that we are staying in their village, in their country, we go by their rules. It was a duty they gave us. We had no right to refuse.
Finally I say, “But you just don’t fool around with life that way. There are always consequences.”
Eric looks off into the night. We eat and drink in silence. I’m only interested in the beer but after three I still feel nothing. The lobster looks pink and meaty but I can’t bring myself to eat it. I really don’t feel well. I order a Nescafe out of desperation and don’t touch it. The couple at the next table has tried to engage us in conversation three times.
Two Mexican boys, probably Maria’s sons, come out of the kitchen and sit at one of the tables near us. One plays the guitar while the other sings a sad, slow song in Spanish. It is soothing and beautiful and the couple even stops talking to listen. The moon is a full agate, round and sharp against the black sky. The warm breeze sifts through the clothes hanging on the back line and the perpetual generator hums. We sit listening to the singing and the night sounds for a while. Then we pay. Maria is upset we didn’t eat all our food and keeps asking if it wasn’t cooked right, did she do something wrong, can she make us something else? Eric tells her it’s the best lobster we’ve ever eaten, even better than Boston and tips her double. She smiles brightly.
We stay in San Ignatio three more days, mostly to bathe our wounds in the river. We avoid the town square and the people. When we leave, it’s in the middle of the night. We make it all the way down to La Paz, over on the boat to Puerto Vallarta, then Guadalajara where Eric buys me the promised huaraches. Their soles are made out of truck tires. We never do see any parrots or jungle.
Back in San Diego, I go to Planned Parenthood because I suspect I’m pregnant. They recommend a clinic for an abortion and Eric comes with me and holds my hand. Afterwards I lie in a motel room bleeding for two days.
Once I’m well enough, I go to the public library and look up tarantulas. I seek out a long wooden table, empty of people. I sit alone at the far end, and I read this: eight hundred species of tarantulas—harmless to humans—lifespan 25 to 40 years—they eat insects that destroy crops—can be trained as pets.
And this: “If its presence is not desired, a tarantula can easily be placed in a container and transported to some area where it can continue, unmolested, to live its useful life.”
Otre vez, otre vez.
(This is a work of nonfiction.)
A freelance writer for a number of publications, Dian Parker also writes about artists and their work for Art New England, Two Coats of Paint, Vermont Art Guide, Kolaj Magazine, Mountain View Publishers, and Randolph Herald. She is the gallery director and curator for White River Gallery in Vermont. Her short stories have been published in Anomaly, BlazeVOX, Artificium, Burlington Beat, Peacock Journal, James Franco Review, and she has recently completed a short story collection.