Going to Mexico

My college suitemate Michelle put on a Beach Boys cassette and hit play as part of a pitch to convince us to spend Spring Break in a Mexican Caribbean resort.

I tried to explain I'd want to eat the local food and learn Spanish if I went to Mexico. Michelle didn't get it.

They went without me.

I took a road trip to Mississippi with my friend Sue. We drove nonstop from Ithaca, stopping only for a speeding ticket and when we ran out of gas (oops). We stayed with Sue's relatives, most of whom had never seen a Jew before. We dug for Indian arrowheads in a town so small you won't find it on the map and goggled the Norman Rockwells at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson. "I let one touch me once," Sue's great aunt said, as a way to illustrate that she wasn't racist. (She had bought a purse for her African American maid who was so happy she hugged her.) Her grandmother was offended by the way I wore my clothes (baggy), and she freely tossed around N-words that to my northern ears sounded odious.

In some ways it was an uncomfortable trip""Sue and I clashed culturally with her family (who were shocked by our liberal ways and wouldn't let us take a walk into town by ourselves for fear we'd get raped) and we were also at a loss for what to say to the guys who flirted with us, from long-haired white guys in the city who offered to buy us beers, to the strapping black farmers whose accents were so thick we could barely understand what they were saying.

Michelle and my other friends came back from their Spring Break tan, relaxed, and happy. Sue and I came back anxious about the state of race relations in America.

It took me another twenty years to actually get to Mexico. To escape Ashland's gray skies, my family rented a small house in Loreto, a town on the Sea of Cortez, in Baja California Sur. The taxi dropped us at the driveway and we walked down a dirt road strewn with odorous dog droppings. Our place was on a flag lot wedged among Loretano family residences. Why couldn't I have kept things simple and gone to a nice clean resort where there would be neither feral dogs nor their offal?

The next day a neighbor named Jesus came to welcome us with a huge piece of birthday cake (hers) and her grandchildren. Eleven-year-old Paula dropped in a few days later and gave my kids a detailed Spanish lesson ("Now, if your mother says 'open the cabinet,' you open it, like this. If she says 'get a bowl,' you get the bowl. OK?"). We spent hours on the beach combing for shells by ourselves (the water was warm but a gusting northern wind scared most of the tourists and locals away) and one day a man in a small sea kayak paddled by. "Want to try it?" he asked amiably when he saw how excited my kids were by his boat. When I joked "yes!" he actually beached and let us all have a go. We bought our food at a tienda called El Serape and went to a flea market where a recovering drug addict with bad teeth who lived 14 years in L.A. praised Jesus.

In some ways it was an uncomfortable trip &

stray dogs roam Loreto and one chased me foaming at the mouth while I was running; the house was so dusty, full of mouse droppings and spiders that allergies and asthma flared up; and I could understand only half of what anyone said to me. But from the kitchen window as I cooked dinner I watched Etani using hand signals to communicate with Jesus's 3-year-old grandniece as they tore under the mango and lemon trees back to her house. "Tell them about my friend Paula," my 8-year-old daughter said when I asked what was the best thing about Loreto. "They should know about her!"

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