He was an old Mexican with sad, patriarchal
eyes and thinning hair, grey as cement dust. He had a
way of erasing a look of philosophic deliberation by tightening
his mouth to a line and curling the corners upward while
he shrugged his bony shoulders and lifted his thick, swept-back
eyebrows. He did this to press home a point or the value
of his opinion.
We had been standing on the sidewalk in
front of his trinket shop for quite a while, talking.
He often went out onto the street when the little shop
began to kindle under the cruel Baja sun. There was no
air conditioner, only a small fan that did little more
than relocate the hot air. The old man kept his eye on
the open door and when someone would peer inside he would
call out "Que tal?" and follow them into the shop.
During the course of our conversation, which
had its beginnings in the usual exchanges between strangers
on a hot afternoon, I was told he had been a guide for
a large Mexican travel agency and had been all over the
"Where was your favorite place?" I asked
He looked down at his brown vein-trellised
hands and for a moment his thick eyebrows conferred with
each other. "British Columbia," he said finally.
I felt a flush of pride. I was from British
"I like the Victoria Island," he said.
"You mean Vancouver Island," I corrected.
"No," He raised a finger slender as a Toledo
dagger, prepared to defend his knowledge. "Is different.
Vancouver is big city."
"Yes, it's across the water from Vancouver
Island," I explained gently. "Victoria is on Vancouver
Those Gepetto eyebrows jumped and he looked
at me doubtfully. "Maybe is so," he ceded.
But I knew he only waived the argument because
he saw no real harm in my ignorance. Certainly it was
shocking I should know so little about my own country,
but then anyone who would leave such a place as Victoria
Island to come to San Felipe was not expected to have
a credible mind.
"And I like the Banff," he told me. "Lake
Of course Banff was in Alberta, but I was
not going to show my ignorance again.
"Yes, it is very beautiful there," I said.
"Oh, is wonderful," he assured me. "Most
wonderful place ever."
I glanced up the street and noticed an old
truck parked in front of a refaccioneria. The hood was
up and a man was bent over the engine. There was an air
filter balanced on the radiator. The man removed the old
air filter and dropped it on the ground near his foot.
Then he installed the new one and slammed the hood down.
He walked around to the back of the truck where four young
children were standing on the open flat-bed. He said something
to them and they laughed. Then he kissed each one of them
and said something else. They sat down. He went back and
started the engine. As he pulled away from the curb, the
old air filter was crushed under the rear tires.
"You see," said the old man, who had been
watching. "That is why I like so much the Victoria Island
and the Banff. The Canadians people love their land and
do not destroy it."
"There does seem to be a lot of garbage
along the roads here in Mexico," I said to satisfy his
"Phee!" he replied as he turned his head
aside, still keeping his eyes on me. "What do we Mexicanos
know about beauty? We see flower --throw empty bottle
on it. We see beautiful land --fill with broken cars.
We care nothing for beauty. "Que tal?" he said to three
young Mexican girls who where tilting their heads into
his open shop. He went with them inside and when they
emerged a few minutes later they were wearing brightly
colored baseball caps. The old man looked at me, shrugged
We talked for a while longer about his work
for the travel agency and the many different cities he
had visited. He spoke about Montreal where he had worked
as a guide during Expo '67. He described Rome and the
Vatican to me. And he smiled as he recalled the strange
religious ritual he had witnessed in Bankok.
"How long have you been in San Felipe?"
I asked him.
"Eight years," he said critically.
"You don't like it here?"
His face showed his contempt for the small
"These people here, they are not good."
He looked up and down the street with a kind of conspiratorial
discretion. "They are money crazy," he almost whispered.
"Do everything for money."
"Then why do you live here?"
"My granddaughter," he said, his voice
rising. "My daughter and her husband come to San Felipe.
He work here. I live with them. After while they have
baby. My granddaughter." The old man's eyes softened and
he smiled sweetly. "They say a grandfather does not choose.
He love all his grandchildren equal. But is not true.
We have favorite. I have also a grandson, but he is born
in United States. I see him only one, two times every
year. But my granddaughter!" He brought the fingers of
his hands together, as if he held two delicate butterflies
and couldn't decide which one to release. Finally he let
one go and stared at the remaining one. "She grow up with
me." He looked at me and the intensity of his gaze shocked
me. "Do you understand?" he said huskily.
I nodded. "She is like your own daughter,
The old man snapped his hands down, stamped
his foot on the sidewalk and ducked his head. "That is
it!" he cried fervently. "Exactly. And now my son-in-law
has job in Marida and take my daughter. And my granddaughter."
He looked down at the sidewalk, ashamed at having shown
the face of his pathos to a foreigner. A gringo.
"Have they asked you to come to Marida
with them?" It was a personal question, but this old man's
candor invited familiarity.
"They are there now," he lamented. "I will
go also but I have problem. I must sell my properties."
"You have property near here?"
"I have five properties in San Felipe,"
he said. "They are all good. Three of them on Chetumal.
But they do not sell. When a Mexicano wants to have property
he goes to government and they sell land cheap. My properties
are worth much, so they do not sell."
"But this town is growing fast. There must
be someone interested in property on the main street."
The old man lifted his great eyebrows and
shrugged. Then his face fell into lines of sadness and
he rested a gentle hand on my shoulder.
"There is something worse," he said. "In
Marida, on table, is picture of me. My granddaughter,
she see picture and ask mother where I am. And soon she
is crying. And here, every night after I lock store --I
cry." He walked to the edge of the sidewalk and leaned
against a car. "I want to go tomorrow!" he agonized."What
is to be done?"
I tried to placate him, but the man was
heartbroken and only the miracle of having his granddaughter
restored to him that very instant would serve to calm
him. We ended our conversation awkwardly. I said goodbye
and wished him speedy success with the sale of his properties.
He smiled and nodded his head.
As I drove back to my camp I thought about
the profound devotion these Mexicans have for their children.
Even the man with the old truck who had littered the streets
of his own town had displayed this quality by gently and
lovingly cautioning his children. It is true we Canadians
have the Rocky Mountains. We have Banff and we have Jasper.
But these things have a sterile grandeur, a clinical splendor
that resonates with no other human element than our readiness
to feel awe in the presence of something that dwarfs the
The Mexicans too have a great natural resource.
It is ingenuous and child-sized and accessible to all
There is a vast social abyss separating
these two provinces. In any well-balanced society they
should coexist compatibly. The truth is they do not. When
one appears the other is pushed into neglect. The land
or the people. A difficult choice.
It would be interesting to compare these
two resources, weigh their relative values. They should
be judged according to their ability to approach our usual
standard of measure --happiness. Of course one has to
make a few assumptions about human nature. But nothing
beyond our common experiences.
First, approach a man who is standing on
the summit of Mount Robson. Tap him firmly on the shoulder.
He will be hard to distract. He'll be absorbed in the
beauty of the surrounding snowy pinnacles, the almost
tactile floor of fleecy clouds at his feet. When you have
his attention ask him if he is happy. He will of course
reply that he is. Then take a minute to explain the philosophical
implication of his answer. Ask him again. He will then
reply to the effect that he is overwhelmed and utterly
Now reunite that old man with his granddaughter.
"Are you happy?" ask him. And again explain the question.
Watch his eyes sparkle and the grey quills of his eyebrows
"Oh yes," he'll tell you. "Oh, is wonderful.
Most wonderful thing ever."
And now for the delicate overlap, ironic
in a way. Did you notice? Both men were short of breath.