February 7, 2019
Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico
I woke to the sound of the man across the street sweeping the gutters and sidewalk in front of his house. The trees here shed and regrow their leaves continuously. If you don’t sweep them up, the leaves create cover for tarantulas and scorpions. A leaf-littered yard makes a house look unoccupied, my landlord has reminded me. Sweeping in the tropics is a security issue.
I envy the older man across the street who has set up his life in such way that he is ready to sweep at 6:30 a.m. every day. He seems relaxed about it, bare-chested and house-proud. I imagine that he’s had his coffee and a moment’s meditation in the shade of his courtyard before emerging broom in hand. Anyone who does the same thing at the same time almost every day has access to some inner sextant that is cosmically aligned to something peaceful and good.
The leaves in my yard have caused me a mild identity crisis. Are we embracing our lax approach to lawn care as part of an overall bohemian ethos? I sit at my computer most of the day on my porch starting at my yard, after all. Is what I’m working on so important that I don’t even notice the leaves? Between us, I know the answer (no), but maybe my neighbours assume that I am working on something that consumes me completely. I would be thrilled if they assumed that and I would not correct their misconception. The other possibility is that I’m just lazy (true), and my neighbours know this, and shrug and look away.
I was in no shape to rake now, but by the time I would be, in about an hour, it would be too hot. I told myself maybe today I’d rake in the evening, when it cools down. In the kitchen, my kids had poured themselves cornflakes and are now dribbling agave syrup that I accidentally bought thinking it was honey. It’s unlabeled so really there’s no way to know what it is, exactly. I bought it from a woman at the public market selling it out of plastic soda bottles.
As the kids and I left the house to walk to school, I surveyed the yard, which contains two coconut palms, three beach almond trees, two mango trees, a tree that gives a pink edible fruit whose name I don’t know and whose fruit I don’t like, and at least four other deciduous trees of unknown variety. Through the dancing shade I noticed that a considerable number of leaves have fallen since yesterday.
There’s also the question of coconuts falling from the trees, which they do, and they can kill you. There’s someone who walks the neighbourhood with a machete who will climb the trees and cut down your coconuts before they fall, and I’d moved my desk out to the front porch for the past three days so I’d notice when he passes by, but I hadn’t seen him. There were several very heavy bunches of coconuts ready to fall and, while I could live with my leaf litter situation, the pendulous coconuts were actually worrying.
The walk to school was short but we passed the two landmarks of interest to all of us. First is the La Providencia coffin showroom, which is a small storefront completely open to the street. The interior can hold about ten coffins on display, all wrapped in clear plastic. Most of them are adorned with satin ribbons folded into intricate patterns. Every so often, merchandise will be ominously absent. Recently, half the store’s inventory was gone in a day.
The second landmark is a cellphone tower disguised to pass for an enormous coconut palm. I’m touched by how they scored the surface of the giant steel pole to suggest the texture of an actual palm. I’ve seen cell towers disguised as pine trees in Canada, and I wonder how many species of tree are represented by disguised cell towers worldwide. My guess is six, tops.
Back at home, my husband had left for the day to the office where he writes, and I set up my laptop on the front porch, turned on the Freedom app, and tried to write three pages of my doctoral dissertation in the next four hours. A handful of vendors passed by on the street beyond my yard. I could see them through the trees, and hear them by each of their distinctive sound. I was profoundly grateful for the distractions.
First was the water guy, who was selling drinking water jugs out of the back of his pickup. He was recognizable by the precise, long interval between horn-honkings as he slowly drove the residential streets. Next was the guy who sells fish out of a cooler bungie-corded to the back of his motorcycle. He calls out a rapid list over the sound of his engine, “dorado-camarones-ceviches.”
He was followed a little later by the guy who sharpens knives with a pedal-powered grindstone that, word has it, is not good for your knives. Then by least two men pass who were pushing small refrigerated popsicle carts with small tinkling bells attached to them. I thought about getting a lime popsicle at around 2 p.m. but was too lazy to get up and find the change inside. I did manage at some point to eat a very self-abnegating lunch of stale tostada with leftovers on top. This is a kind of laziness that feels virtuous.
The final vendor I saw was the man we call the “roasty-toasty man,” which is an unfair name because it’s inspired by a song that my entire family hates, which is “the Hurdy-gurdy Man,” by Donovan. The roasty-toasty man in no way reminds me of the song. He lives next door to my kids’ school, and he pushes a metal cart with a chimney, that contains a small continuously-fed wood fire, on which he roasts yams and plantains. People like to eat them as sweets, covered in condensed milk and cinnamon, but I like the plantains plain, tasting like the woodsmoke. He blew a beautifully breathy whistle every minute or so, which sounded like a distant train at dusk.
My husband returned home with the kids and I had just barely made my page quota, but I qa satisfied, because I did. We all walkED to the beach to swim before the sun goes down. Without looking at the water, you can tell the conditions of the waves by the number of motorbikes parked at the top of the long stone stairway leading down to the beach. Many of the motorbikes belong to surfers and have handmade surfboard holders welded to their sides. They’re U-shaped pieces of metal with pool noodles threaded over them so as not to ding the boards.
There were no motorbikes—the water was flat. We swam with the other families who have descended to do the same, and chatted with a few people we only know from the beach. We walked home slowly, everyone was tired and hungry. A burst of optimistic energy overtook me when we got home, and before changing out of my bathing suit, I got the broom and began to sweep out the driveway, and then the gutters, and then the sidewalk. I hope that no leaves fall in the night, so that tomorrow morning when the guy across the street comes out to sweep his side, he’ll see that I’ve done mine.