The Guadalajara night air hung in a hot, sweaty stillness as we lay on the doghair floor mattress. Our eyes, computer-illuminated, were fixated on a loading symbol turning round and round on the screen. The amigo nuevo next to me had urged me to look up my Mayan horoscope, which awaited me on the next page. Though I did not one ounce believe in that sort of thing, I waited curiously anyways.
The horoscope was interesting, if vague. I was struck by the part that reported my “challenge”, or weakness; it said mine was “magic”. Meaning, I gathered, that I lack it in my life somehow. I agreed with the diagnosis: my life was devoid of magic… but really just because I don’t believe in it, and if it doesn’t exist, can I be lacking it? What would it even mean to welcome magic into my life? How could my logical, overthinking brain ever embrace something like that?
The friend, all dreadlocks and tattoos and sly smiles, asked innocently, did I really not believe in magic? It’s out there, how sad that you’re missing out on all of it. I was doubtful but intrigued, the certainty in those playful gleaming eyes promising something. I wasn’t sure what.
MEXICO’S WILD WILD WEST
A few days later I was on a bus rolling into the dusty bus station in coastal smalltown Sayulita to stay with an old high school friend. We draped ourselves over lawn chairs in the steamy backyard, talking in a druggy haze of smoke and humidity. Time slowed. We recounted years of lost stories and talked of her sleepy sticky Mexico life, waves and passions and a resplendant timelessness without schedules or goals.
I was enchanted by tales of month long surf trips, penniless escapades through Southeast Asia, and time to live, working only several days a week at surf instructor gigs. It seemed that she was not the only one; I met many that were living this-odd-job lifestyle. Sayulita had tourists, so Sayulita had money, so there was opportunity to carve out your niche in the town. I met a lacrame artist, surf instructor, videographer, part-time baker, panhandler, yoga instructor. People can live like this! I was refreshed and excited.
Alongside the gringos and foreigners were loads of entrepreneurial Mexican vendors selling their wares: sometimes food out of coolers or handmade jewlery, often peanuts and expired Coke on busses.
It turns out that this entrepreneurship, this make-your-way-in-the-world attitude, is a real, rather necessary part of Mexican life. Nearly 60% of the Mexican workforce is outside of the formal economy, which means that they’re earning money “under the table”, without paying taxes at an established institution (and with a comically low minimum wage of 70 pesos, or $4.60 USD a day, I don’t blame them for saying screw the system). It was a wild world of sink-or-swim, and I saw many people putting up a good fight and making it happen.
Salvador Dali once called Mexico “a country that is more surreal than my paintings”, and I slowly came to understand why: massive holes in the roads, crumbing houses, trash in the streets. Families of four, women and children and dogs alike, piled onto motorbikes without helmets. Astounding quantities of people crammed standing into the back of camionetas.
I got the sense that Mexico is a bit lawless: you can do what you want to make it in the world, but there is no infrastructure or fairness in the system if something goes wrong. I felt free, exhilirated, vulnerable, afraid. What I know is not all that there is. Rules are arbitrary. Life is wild.
UP THE NAYARIT COAST
After a week absorbing smalltown life and sunshine in Sayulita, I took an aimless romp through the Riviera Nayarit and found myself in the state capital Tepic, an inland non-destination town.
I couchsurfed with three gems of human beings, all kindness and gentle conversations in patient Spanish. During the day I wandered the streets and bought a Huichol beaded bracelet. At night I sat on the couch across from a new guest Raul: scruffy bearded, fresh faced, wild eyed. He introduced himself with wild gesticulations, threw up his hands, and finished with “…so here I am!”. He had impulsively left Guadalajara to come travel; he had no plans. We would be friends.
The next morning Raul and I shared a fruit cup and jumped on a bus to San Blas, where we launched into conversation. A quirky combination of friendliness and rebelliousness, he described himself as “not so much peace and love. Sometimes I’m more rock and roll”. Bursting with ideas and uncertainty, he had a fascinating faith in the unknown; “When you really want something, the universe conspires to help you achieve it”, he quoted.
He told me about his life in Guadalajara, that it was nice but not quite right, that he needed a change and was ready to take a risk to make that happen (“I don’t care about dying. I do care about not living”). And so we struck up an unlikely frienship as the bus rumbled along to the coast.
WE ARRIVE IN SAN BLAS
San Blas, a tranquil swamptown-by-the-sea, rose from the mangroves. Raul wanted to find work -and he had a good feeling about the town- so everywhere we went he asked about jobs. Meanwhile I had connected with a local, Alberto, who clattered up in an old green truck to show us around.
Alberto greeted us with a hello and a nervously energetic barrage of introductory questions, and then we were off. We made our way out of town and down a dirt road for an afternoon of travel stories, crocodile farms, mosquito-ridden beaches, jackfruit farms, swimming with catfish, and starfruit roadside stands.
As dusk neared, we finished our tour at the top of a big hill. San Blas is the town where the Spanish set up base to explore California, the site that spawned the discovery of San Francisco, of Monterey, of everything I called home. I gazed in wonder at in the town, the swamp, and the bay while mosquitos sucked hungrily on my legs.
The sun set in a grand display of colors and our excitement faded along with the remaining shards of daylight: Raul had not found work and Alberto could not offer us a bed. To numb our disappointment, we went hunting for beer in a shop across from the plaza.
THE UNIVERSE CONSPIRES
Raul chatted with the shop owner as she assembled micheladas, the very Mexican beer-lime-chili-salt combo. I took mine to the plaza, licking the salt off the rim. Within minutes Raul emerged with a stupid grin. “She offered me a job!”. Elated, we clinked styrofoam cups and took a celebratory walk to the beach, where we rented hammocks for 50 pesos each. Things were working out.
Alberto texted us hints throughout the night: “there are phytoplankton in the sand. move it with ur feet and watch.” We met three french travelers on the beach, and as a new gang together made our way into the sea. As we giddily kicked at the water, it illuminated in bursts of microscopic life. We were deleriously and druggedly happy in the sparkling ocean under the stars, and knew with certainty that the world was okay after all.
MAGIC IN A YOUNG GIRLS HEART
Before I knew it I was back in Sayulita admid dust and beer, awaiting a firework display at a rusty city fair. Raul and I were parting ways; he was returning to Guadalajara and I was headed off to a ranch south of Puerto Vallarta to learn about sustainable farming.
I reflected on Guadalajara and my astrological challenge, deciding that maybe I do have the capacity to see magic in the world. Though I wasn’t ready to give up my practical scientific sensibilities, I had seen enough over the past weeks to be convinced that the world is full of undiscovered secrets. I was starting to believe in the beauty of the unknown, and that was at the very least a little magical.
I turned to look up at the sky. The fireworks jumped into the night, and I stood in wonder as they began exploding in colored light and brilliance before fading forever into darkness.