Blog 10: San Pablo Etla

            We call Carlos’s cell phone the minute we leave the toll road from Orizaba and arrange to meet at El Huajal in about fifteen minutes. El Huajal being the name of the house we are renting from Tammi and Karen, and Carlos being its manager. Carlos Plata, neé Carl Silverberg, is a young man in his thirties who is passionate about mountain bikes and runs a business taking visitors out on the trails. The tourist business is in the doldrums these days, what with the economic crisis and the foreign press portraying Mexico as resembling Hue during the Tet offensive, so the bike business does not keep wife and child in food and clothing. Carlos’s second profession is managing the houses of some of the part time residents of San Pablo Etla. We park at the end of the short, unpaved, side road that leads to El Huajal, and before we can even decently doze off from the hours of driving, Carlos wheels up on a mountain bike he has designed and built himself. After a few effusive rounds of Great to See You How’s Your Family Doing, Carlos hands us four keys: front gate, front door, patio door, back gate.


            The house is even prettier than we remembered it. In the small, tree-shaded front yard, the geraniums, chest high, have blossoms the size of an acorn squash. An orchid peeks from a crook of a tree. Carlos points out the new sliding windows, fully screened, and the new kitchen door that also has a screen: more air, fewer bugs. As we walk through the house we are again stunned at the amount of high-end art Tammi and Karen—themselves both artists—have amassed. Clay sculptures cover every table, every shelf, tall figurines and pots rise from every corner. Hanging in every room are mirrors with their frames filled with three dimensional mermaids, demons, iguanas, faces, and musical instruments. From the few remaining bits of bare wall ceramic masks follow our every move. The back half-acre is shaded by a row of towering eucalyptus trees along the fence that separates El Huajal’s terreno from that of the Evangelical church next door. There are fruit trees and five small stone-fenced cactus gardens, each presided over by a tall clay figurine and her smaller attendants.


            We shuttle back into the house, emptying the car into a heap next to the dining room table. We’ll make order later. Linda’s eyes gleam at the opportunity to rearrange furniture. As everyone knows who has ever struggled to impose logic on an array of multiple units, be it pots a kitch

en, furniture in an entire house, staff in a business, curriculum in a university, books in a library, tax records in the auditor’s waiting room, whatever, there are two basic organizational models to choose from: the current way, and the Better Way. It does not matter if the current way functions well, and that the path to the Better Way is arduous and involves much physical and mental labor, and perhaps even expense. As long as there is a Better Way, it, like the Grail, must be sought. It does not matter that after an impossibly short time the Better Way becomes the current way, so that the whole process has to be repeated. The Better Way is always out there, begging us to begin rearranging things. I remind myself of the corollary of the Third Law of Linda-dynamics: always turn on a light before crossing a dark room, even if you think you know where everything was when you went to bed.


            Saturday morning I rise at 6:30 and find much of the car pile stowed away and chairs and tables in unfamiliar places. I hear rockets bursting down in the valley: someone’s birthday, or the patron saint of a house or a village, or just somebody who likes to shoot off rockets. A quick cup of coffee—Linda is still asleep— and I am on the road uphill to Bill and Mary’s house, next door to where we first stayed when we came to Oaxaca last year. On the road I meet bearded Jim on his run from Jim and Cathy’s organic farm a kilometer further up the mountain. I wave hello but he is in a zone and jogs on past me. I know we’ll get together soon. A few steps farther along, Bob, of Bob and French Eveline, is coming through the gate of one of the newer houses on the road. Didn’t they used to live one ridge further north of San Pablo? Bob sees me, does a double take, launches a hug at me, and welcomes me back. He and Eveline have relocated to this house because the owner of the other one wanted it back, but they are leaving in the morning for two weeks with his kids in the US and two more with her kids in Paris, but we’ll get together just as soon as they return. A couple of hundred meters higher along the road, past the trees where sometimes there are flocks of orioles when the sun first peeks over the mountain to the southeast, I see Saraí wheeling her two kids, David and Itaí in a stroller. Her husband, Florencio, a brilliant and very nice young man, is the manager of the properties up at El Barco. Itaí must be eight months old, because she was born the day before we left San Pablo back in March. Saraí and I hug and chat, I take a picture of the tots, and turn the corner into the dirt road that leads to Bill and Mary’s house on the knoll that is El Barco. Bill is standing on the edge of the arroyo next to two women, all of them binoculars raised to their eyes, staring at something moving down in the thickets. I move into the line and raise my glasses.

             “A Oaxacan towhee?” I ask, breaking the silence.

             Bill wheels around. “David! Well, ... well ... it’s about time!”

            Bill introduces me to the two women, short-timers who are staying at the cottage called El Estudio at El Barco, both of them avid birders on a week’s vacation from work in the States. Sheelagh, the older of the two, was vice president of a large software engineering company, and since retiring has spent her time traveling and birding, so far this fall in Australia and Mongolia (two weeks on horseback: maybe a jeep next time). 

            And with no further ado, we four troop off into the thickets and over the field and down the hill to the river ford on the route that Bill has been chronicling for the Cornell Ornithology Program every day for the last six years when he moved from Chicago to San Pablo Etla.

            At 9:00 Bill’s wife Mary comes striding along the road with Bailey the Basset and Leila the Miscellaneous from the early morning dog walk that she does with Rebecca Raab around the perimeter of the Raab’s large maguey farm on the hills beyond the arroyo that forms the southern border of San Pablo Etla. Rebecca and Tony Raab manufacture mescal, shelter stray and wounded animals, and host an array of interesting people in the cottages that dot the thickets around their own modest home. Tom’s father bought the property more than 50 years ago, and Tom and Rebecca have made it their home.

            Mary, tall, thin, white haired, our age but with all the energy of a teenager, hauls the dogs up to us, hands the leashes to Bill, and gives me a long, breathtaking hug. 

            “Welcome home.”