“So we didn’t find the Nile…”* or, what I did on my summer vacation

high desert skyThe writing retreat in Mexico did not come off as planned. I didn’t write, or even try to write. I did reread my old stuff. I got some workable ideas for how to finish a decades-old fantasy novel, but I wasn’t interested in actually doing it. The most recent story idea, on the other hand, was compelling and frustrating – what happens next? Since I had no clue about what happened next, I set that one aside too. Instead of writing, I walked around. I used my senses. I was in a good place for it.

Initially I was going to San Miguel to visit my mother in her new nursing home, and animal-sit on a ranch outside of town with six dogs, a cat, a burro named Guacamole, and a pretty little mare named Maria. I was going to work away on the computer until something happened. The impetus to follow a character and discover the story (and be a writer again) would be fuelled by the isolation of the ranch and maybe even the visits to Mom, since our relationship has always been a difficult one. I was thinking the situation would force me to write. But the animal-sitting gig fell through.

I ended up staying just outside the historical center of San Miguel, in a pink adobe house where my only responsibility was to clean up after the chef – a culinary genius who used every pan in the kitchen at every meal, in this way making me feel useful and necessary as well as feeding me. Instead of wandering the high desert on the ranch (as I did one afternoon), with dogs before and behind me, and dirt as white as salt showing through the burnt grass that was all that was left at the end of the dry season, I sat on the second floor balcony of the pink house, staring at birds and sky and thinking of nothing, or I explored the narrow cobbled streets of San Miguel, all bare swept stone in the sunlight. But the rooftops had gardens, and when the cracked wooden doors of the houses stood open for a breeze you saw courtyards with fountains and the ancient thick-trunked trees that the houses had been built around.

The jardin in the center of town was bounded by trees and filled with trees – ficuses with crowns as thick as a hedge, trimmed square on the street sides. Under the trees locals and tourists sat on benches enjoying the shade, and wiry young men practiced break-dancing. Street musicians sang old Doors’ songs, and there was  a mariachi band, with musicians in short black jackets and tight black trousers, who only played for money and stood around looking picturesque between songs. Across from the jardin was the Parroquia, the main church in a town full of churches, a gothic cathedral built by an indigenous architect who copied the facade from a picture postcard.

In the covered market textiles and pottery and star-shaped tin lanterns were for sale to the tourist trade; but also roasted corn with chili pepper and lime, round prickly pear cactus for salads, zucchini and broccoli, tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms, cilantro and basil, mangoes and papaya, pineapple, figs, melons, avocados, limes. The combination of smells was ambrosial, even after my companions told me that the smell was only rotting fruit. It was good rotting fruit. Like wine.

view from balcony1

Waiting for rain: the view from the balcony of the pink house; the Parroquia is on the left, hidden by a treetop; lake in the distance.

Although the pink house was up a steep hill, and the street to and from the town center unevenly paved with stones – more like a rocky beach than a street – the trip was only a ten-minute walk under the hot sun, and once you got there all was well. The pink house sat in a garden with a fish pond; it was made of adobe and situated to catch every breeze; and it had spectacular views of the city and the mountains, the plateau and the silvery lake behind the dam.

At sunset white egrets flew back to the arroyo and the spring-fed pools up on the ridge behind the house, and the hummingbirds came to the feeders on the balcony. I had seen hummingbirds only rarely before this trip, and thought of them as solitary. These hummingbirds lived in a mob in the bamboo trees, chittering insults and dive-bombing each other, fighting for space at the feeders when there was plenty of room. They were not iridescent, but small and grey with black heads, little quarreling pilgrims. If I sat very still they’d hover in front of me – who’s this here? – and then zoom off sideways if I moved even slightly.

Storm clouds also drifted by in the late afternoons and early evenings. They would loose a few raindrops, sail on out over the town, and then soak the plateau beyond. One night the whole mountain range on the eastern horizon was lit by lightning, striking the mountaintops in fiery lines over and over, with a flickering veil of heat lightning as a backdrop. It was so far away you never heard a sound, no rumble of thunder, not even a mutter.

*The title quote is from The Annunciation by Ellen Gilchrist. The protagonist Amanda, an ex-alcoholic, is about to get totally shit-faced for a reason I won’t give away. Here’s what she has to say on this occasion:

“So we didn’t find the Nile. So a few years more have flown by in our search for the elusive Black Orchid. The artist’s life, like that of the philosopher, is only in the doing…We will drink and eat. We will rest from our journey.”


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