San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

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 world.

"Where was your favorite place?" I asked him.

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 Columbia.

"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 Island."

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 Louise."

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 remark.

"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 and smiled.

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 tourist town.

"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, young again."

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 ego.

The Mexicans too have a great natural resource. It is ingenuous and child-sized and accessible to all of them.

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 humbled.

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 lift.

"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.

Ah, Nature.