Two months have passed since my last visit to the WordPress dashboard. A full month went by when I didn’t make a single gift. Strangely ironic that it was October, the month two years ago during which I gave away a hundred dollar bill every single day.
A lot has happened. A couple of weeks after my last post, Andrew dropped off a painting for me. It is more beautiful than I ever imagined and now hangs on my wall. Sadly, Andrew emailed me the other day saying that his scooter was stolen from in front of his house.
We got a new kitten and named him Hugo.
We had an election, the outcome of which had me in a state of giddy excitement and relief for days.
Then Louise and I spent a week in Baja. A shiny, sparkly, sun-soaked, whale-spotting, margarita-drinking, ocean-dipping, star-gazing week. We had miles of beach pretty much to ourselves every day.
We saw whales spouting and breaching and watched a group of manta rays leaping from the water for an hour. While reason (and wikipedia) suggested this behavior was intended to evade a predator, probably a shark, it appeared to be the manifestation of pure unfettered joy.
A hummingbird had made a nest on one of the fronds of a small palm tree next to the entrance to our room. Every day we had multiple sightings of her and her eggs, which looked exactly like couple of white tic-tacs and one of which hatched on the last day of our stay.
Then there were the accommodations themselves, at Rancho Pescadero. We went last year and made reservations to return before coming home. We did the same again this time. I have to try to explain what is so special about this place.
Imagine your grown child is lucky enough to own a small tasteful resort on an empty stretch of beach in Baja. Now imagine you go for a week’s visit. Your child (the owner) is away at the time. The staff want to make a good impression, but in a low-key way. They want word to get back to their boss that you were treated like royalty but never that they were sucking up to boss’s mom. You feel pretty special until you notice that everyone else is getting the royal treatment too. That’s when you know your child has built something amazing and you are so proud you could spit.
THAT IS WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE A GUEST THERE. They discover a new winery and want you to have a taste of the best bottle. A fresh fish is brought to the kitchen and they want you to see it, wondering if you would like it cooked for your dinner. Didn’t bring sunscreen? Help yourself; there’s plenty by the pool, along with towels, magazines, fans and bags so you can carry all of this a hundred yards to the beach. Off for a visit to a beach down the way? They will load your car up with everything you need. Trouble with your rental car? They’ll take care of it. Want to surf? Fish? Have dinner by a fire pit on the ocean? Done. They have thought of everything.
It’s hard to pry yourself away from that kind of pampering but, after a week, the time had come to say goodbye. I was among a small group of people waiting in the reception area to check out when I noticed a young couple standing shyly off to the side. They caught the attention of Carlos, the employee, and inquired about the room rate.
“Rooms start at 200 a night,” he told them.
“Dollars?” the young man asked, shaking his head. He and the young woman conferred briefly, then asked if they could just go to the beach. “This access is for guests only, but there is another entrance down the way,” explained Carlos. As they walked slowly away I imagined how I would feel in their shoes. And I was caught off guard by a flood of memories from my own travels almost 40 years ago.
After my first year of college, barely 18 and still reeling from my father’s sudden death, I set off by myself to South America. I wasn’t sure what I would do there or how long I would stay but I knew I needed to get away. I wanted to run as far and fast as I could from the life I knew. My playful, generous and loving father was gone forever and had left me to fend for myself. My mother, scared and needy, was already remarried to a round jolly man so unlike my dad that it made my head spin.
I had some connections scattered across the continent, including one good friend. The others were laughably tenuous: a sort of friend of a friend, the cousin of an acquaintance, a friend of my Spanish professor’s sister – basically strangers whose names and addresses scrawled on scraps of paper I carried with me everywhere.
I also carried with me my entire fortune of $500 in traveller’s checks. This had to cover all my expenses while I was gone as well as my eventual plane ticket home.
At one point, I stayed with a family in Lima, Peru, for a few weeks (somehow related to a favorite high school teacher with whom I had remained in contact). Cecilia, an architecture student, was about my age. I got to know some of her classmates and one of them gave me the name of his uncle who lived in Arequipa, where I was headed next. He didn’t know his uncle’s phone number but said I would be able to find him when I got there.
I arrived at the dusty bus station and found a phone book. The man’s name and number was listed and he answered the phone, telling me to come right over when I explained why I was calling. It was a short walk from the station and the whole family was waiting for me outside the tiny house when I arrived. The mother welcomed me warmly, giving me one hug after another. She looked me up and down, smiling and holding me at arm’s length as if I were her long lost daughter.
“Tell me again?” she said in Spanish. “De parte de quien?” Who sent you?
It turns out they had no relatives in Lima and had never heard of the boy I knew; it was the wrong family. No matter. They fed me dinner and apologized profusely that they had no room for me to stay. A few blocks away was a place where I could rent a room for a dollar a night. I stayed a few days and had all my meals with the family.
Before I left town I did find the uncle. He picked me up in his car and showed me where he lived: a huge modern house on a hilltop. He wouldn’t let me go inside but took me to his country club so I could take a shower.
The $500 lasted me six months. I felt strong and brave as well as small and vulnerable and alone. Sometimes I forgot that I would never have a father again, and that my mother had a strange new life I didn’t recognize or feel a part of. Some weeks I wandered the streets of unfamiliar towns, staring through the glass of restaurant windows as people ate and drank. Their safe and comfortable world felt as distant to me as the college dorm room I had left thousands of miles behind.
To say that I relied on the kindness of strangers would be a vast understatement. People showed me the sights, fed me, took an interest in me, welcomed me into their homes, gave me warm clothes when it got cold, cheered me up, tided me over when my traveller’s checks were stolen, gave me helpful advice and suggested I stop smoking. And that’s just for starters.
Rancho Pescadero is a mile down a very rough dirt road and I figured the young couple must have a vehicle as I watched the pair of them trudge off toward the parking area. I deliberated with myself briefly, then knew what I had to do and took off after them.
Sure enough, they had a car with a “Thrifty” sticker on it . They were just getting in as I got close enough to call out, “Excuse me!” The guy turned around. “We’re just going to the beach,” he explained, as if I were coming to chase them off the property.
“I heard you asking about the rate,” I said. “Yes, we can’t afford it,” he admitted. “I know,” I said. “I’d like to pay for one night for you. It’s a wonderful place!”
They were wary. Confused. “But why?” the woman asked. “I’m not comfortable with this,” the man declared. I was laughing but I could feel tears starting to spring up. “Think of it as a gift,” I said. “Everyone should have a night in paradise!”
They were dumbfounded, struck speechless. Then the man said they could pay half. “Let me do this for you,” I pleaded. “I’ll meet you at the reception area. I hope you do it.”
I wasn’t sure if they would take off in a panic as I made my way back to where Louise was waiting with our luggage. “I did something kind of crazy,” I confessed, telling her the story. She was fine with it –happy, in fact – as I knew she would be.
Then there they came, walking toward me. The man had his wallet out and was holding a credit card. “We’re going to pay for it,” he announced. “No, you’re not!” I countered.
They looked happy and healthy and clearly had their wits about them. They had a rental car and a credit card. They probably had little in common with me as the dirty, hungry traveling girl of all those years ago. I was struck by how solidly I now inhabit the safe and secure world I once found so out of reach.
I stepped up to the counter and handed over my credit card. I said I was paying for their room and we all hugged. They told me they are visiting from France and had been traveling for a month. “We just don’t know what to say,” said Lucie. “We don’t understand why you are doing this,” said Ben.
“When you’re older you’ll be able to do things like this too,” I said. “I hope so!” said Ben earnestly. “We will never forget this. Did someone do something like this for you?”
I was trying my best not to cry. “Many times,” I managed to say. “So many times.”
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