Not long after the New Year, my friend and neighbor here in Zacatitos, Marilyn Z, sent me an email saying that, at 81 years of age, she had lost her battle with cancer and had passed on to the other side.
Marilyn went on to say that when she left her beloved home in Baja to see an oncologist in New York, he told her that although things looked bad, she still had two treatment options: chemo or radiation.
“Which would you recommend for your wife?” Marilyn asked.
“Well, my wife and I are divorced, I pay her huge sums in alimony, and I hate her dearly. So for her I would recommend both.”
“Then I don’t want either,” Marilyn said.
“Good choice,” the doctor replied.
It was the first time I had ever received an email from the other side, the first time I had ever heard such a thing was possible, but it didn’t surprise me at all that it had come from Marilyn. She was always capable of surprises. I once watched her march bravely into surf higher than her head (she was only five feet tall), just for the pleasure of feeling the ocean toss her around. When people asked Marilyn why she painted her house in Zacatitos an outrageous purple and lime-green, she told them, “Because you can’t do that in the U.S.!” For her, Baja was a chance to get a little more fun out of life at a time when most people her age were resigned to the slow daily death of TV and trips to Walmart. Her courage was rewarded with a youthful, irreverent humor and a house full of friends to enjoy it with.
Besides sharing her cache of cold beer with me, when I had no means to keep a beer cold, and allowing me to beat her at Scrabble on peaceful Sunday afternoons, Marilyn taught me some of the fundamentals of surviving in Baja: where to buy drinking water safe enough for a gringo’s weak stomach; where to find good emergency medical care; where to get sopa de mariscos at Mexican — not tourist — prices; and where to get the best deal on Pacifico by the case. She told me her philosophy for living in Mexico was the same as living anywhere else: “Don’t hurt anybody, and try to help somebody if you can.”
And, she said, “Be sure to pay your property tax in January.”
So before the end of the month, I took my angelic friend’s advice and drove the 10 kilometers of dusty road into San José del Cabo to pay my annual tax.
At 500 pesos, or less than $50 per year, the property tax in Baja California Sur is so cheap that even unrepentant surfers like me, who squandered their youth on the beaches of San Diego, can afford to retire here with some hope of squandering their old age in a similar way. You might think of this place as another chance at the Leucadia of the ’70s, the place and decade my wife and I met. It’s beautiful, it’s peaceful, and it’s still fairly cheap.
And don’t tell anybody, but the surf here is better than Leucadia ever was. Most of San Diego County doesn’t get a south swell, which is why the surf is so poor in the summer. This place faces south, and in the winter, when the north swells arrive, you can drive over to the Pacific side in an hour. This place lacks the crowds of California, the violence and racial tension of Hawaii, and you can get here in just about any vehicle with a thousand miles of abuse left in it. If the Mexicans deported us and shut down the border, we would have to hire coyotes to smuggle us back in.
It’s not uncommon to see California’s newly arrived surf refugees, like dust-bowl Okies, camped along Baja’s beaches in broke-down, rusted-out vans, with an old gray-muzzled dog and a patched-up longboard. To ex-wives and the IRS, they might as well be dead. Their past may have been ugly, but for the first time in a long time they have a future.
As surfers who watched the California coastline ravaged in our lifetimes, we might prefer that people back in the U.S. go right on thinking Mexico is too dangerous for them to live here. Some surfers here will resent my even talking about how good conditions are, for fear the crowds will become as intolerable as they are in California. And maybe they’re right. If Americans prefer to keep their misconceptions about Mexico, maybe it’s better things stay that way. But the truth is, except for those bad border towns, most of Baja is a more tranquil place than the typical American city. The gun violence taken for granted in the U.S. as a constitutional right simply doesn’t exist here in Los Cabos.
A friend of mine who lives in Northern California, but spends half the year in Baja, was asked by somebody at home, “Isn’t it dangerous to go to Mexico?” And my friend said, “Yes, it is. You have to pass right through L.A.”
When my wife and I read a gruesome story about a man from Carlsbad who murdered his parents and fled, possibly to Baja, we were shocked. “That guy better be careful. Doesn’t he know it’s dangerous down here?”
Of course, our family and friends in the States think my wife and I are crazy for moving here. They watch way too much news on TV and think drug lords in black Escalades sweep through the streets every day, shooting and beheading people. When a friend heard we were moving to Mexico, he asked, “What in the hell inspired that? Insanity?”
“We just felt like somebody needed to move in the other direction,” I said.
This misconception of Mexico being more dangerous than the U.S. hurts Mexico, which depends on the tourist business for about one-third of its revenue. Every time Lou Dobbs, or any of the other angry and embittered commentators on TV news, opens his scowling mouth, a few more Mexicans lose their jobs. This is a very real problem here. The American media’s neurotic insistence on portraying Mexico as a more dangerous place than the United States serves no purpose other than to prop up Americans’ damaged self-confidence. It hurts hardworking people.