There is a little stretch of sandy beach, nestled between a freshwater river and the Pacific Ocean, on the coast of Guererro, Mexico. About a dozen families live there, in open air palapas. Hammocks are tied between the poles that hold up the palm-thatched roofs, and that is where everyone sleeps. There is no electricity or running water. The only enclosed, private spaces are the latrines, which consist of 3 wooden walls and a drawn curtain. Oil lamps provide light after sundown. Coconut shells and husks and scraps of wood provide the cooking fuel to prepare tortillas and rice and beans and the best fresh-caught fish you will ever taste. A small boat comes down the river every morning to provide supplies. Ice. Lots of ice. Peppers and tomatoes and squash and mangos and pineapples and avocados and beans and fresh water. Bottles of beer and soft drinks for the guests.
Because each palapa is a sort of beach resort.
Most of the guests are locals from the other side of the river on the mainland, looking to spend the day at the beach. They hang out in the hammocks, swim in the ocean or the river, drink some beer, enjoy a fantastic meal of whatever fish the palapa owner caught that morning. And then they head home. Periodically, travelers from farther away stay overnight, or for extended periods of time. This isn’t like a hotel or a guest house or even a B&B. You basically ask permission to sleep in a hammock, and the family chats with you and assesses you, and if they like you, you are invited to stay.
I went there a few times in the mid-80’s. Usually with friends. But the best time I ever had there was one Semana Santa, when all of my friends had plans with family or significant others. I went on my own. For 9 days. I have had so many Easter week adventures, at different stages of my life. Wild spring breaks. Warm family get-togethers. A backpacking adventure. Disney with my daughter. But oh, that week will always stand out. And the Chrstian Bible will always evoke memories of the salty smell of the wind and the sounds of the Pacific Ocean and the taste of Mexican beer. Because during my stay, I read the entire Old Testament in a hammock, and got almost through the New Testament. It was quite an education
I always stayed in the palapa where Dona Rosa was the matriarch. Her grown children lived on the mainland with their families, most of the time. The younger kids lived there. But her youngest grandchildren mostly stayed there in the palapa. There was a large gaggle of little girls between the ages of 3 and 7, with some nieces older than their aunts, and I never completely understood who was related to whom and how.
Dona Rosa called me “usted” because I was a teacher, and I merited respect in her eyes. The little girls called me “tu” because they thought I was the silliest person they had ever met. They could run under my hammock and tip me out of it with absolute ease. Any local child over the age of 3 could hold on during a hammock tipping event. Even the stately Dona Rosa could hold on when the kids arrived en masse to tip the hammock. Hammock tipping was a frequent activity. Not with the day guests. It was basically reserved for family and visiting neighbors from other palapas. So I guess it was sort of an honor for the girls to come and tip me. Oh. And they laughed and laughed, because I fell out every time. And Dona Rosa kept telling them to call me “usted” while they were teasing me for falling out again. But they could not bring themselves to do it.
One day when the girls and women took a rowboat out to the river to do laundry, I asked if I could come along because I had accumulated a lot of sweaty laundry. This of course, provided more reason to laugh at me, because I struggled incompetently to lean over the side of the boat and scrub my shorts and tee shirts and underwear. I kept rocking the boat, and a few times clothing items floated away from me, and had to be rescued by a 7 year old with an oar. I also sort of just squeezed the clothes, as opposed to the vigorous scrubbing that even the little girls did so competently. And the little girls laughed at me as Dona Rosa stoically continued to remind them to call me usted.
The wall-less palapa was incredibly clean. The husband would leave before dawn to fish for the day’s meals. The women and girls would get up at sunrise and rake the sand that served as a floor, collect fuel for the fire, toss water over every solid surface, empty and scrub the ice coolers. The latrine was cleaned several times per day, and moved to a new location every few days. The husband and some boys would dig a new hole in the sand, pick up the small, three walled structure, move it to a new spot, and fill up the old hole.
Dona Rosa and her husband did not own shoes. But the older children did. They all went to school, and needed shoes. Dona Rosa and her husband did not know how to read or write. Their 17 year old daughter kept the “books” for the establishment. It was sort of an honor’s system. You helped yourself to beer and water and soft drinks from the cooler, counted how many you took, and reported at the end of the day. Day guests reported how many meals they ate. The 17 year old added it all up, and charged you for your expenses. I like milk in my morning coffee, and so they ordered it especially for me and added it to my daily expenses. Three amazing meals, beer, water, milk for coffee, a hammock overlooking the Pacific Ocean, cost about the equivalent of $7 US dollars per day.
The food. Oh the food. Breakfast was usually an egg dish, packed with veggies and sometimes seafood, sometimes smothered in spicey, aromatic sauces. Usually rice and beans. Always tortillas. The big meal at 2 or 3 PM, was created with whatever the husband had brought back from his morning fishing trip. Sometimes salt water. Sometimes fresh water. Both options were right there. If he had a good catch, it was whole fish with amazing sauces. And on really good days he sold the surplus to the vendor who arrived on the row boat every morning to bring supplies. If it was a mixed catch, or a slow day, Dona Rosa would prepare a broth or stew and stretch it out with rice or starchy vegetables. And these were often the most interesting meals, scraped together with whatever they had, and always seasoned in the most unexpected and exciting ways. There was no menu. Special requests (like milk for my coffee) could usually be accommodated. But you ate what there was. And it was always amazing. The late night meal was leftovers from the day’s catch, rice, beans, tortillas sauces, fruits.
In the evenings, as the sun went down, they lit oil lamps and set them on the various tables. The day guests were gone. Residents of other palapas would come over. Sometimes they would bring instruments and play music. Other times, they would dance barefoot in the sand to music played on a battery operated radio. People would tell long, elaborate stories, and the children would pipe in to finish sentences in the familiar stories, or ask questions during the unfamiliar ones. But the Semana Santa I spent there alone was during an election year. And although they did not read or write or watch television news, (and it was many, many years before the internet on your cell phones), they listened to the news on the radio, and attended public events, and shared observations and insights.
One night they were debating the merits of the PRI, (the established party that always held power, and whose representatives handed out food at public rallies during election years), vs the new and prominent challengers on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. They were remarkably well-informed, and I was enjoying the discussion immensely. The children were bored, and at a certain point, a little girl, about 5 or 6 years old, vying for attention, killed a scorpion and held it up shouting “Mira mami! Un alacran! Mira mami! Un alacran!” Dona Rosa looked uncharacteristically irritated, gently slapped the little girl’s hand, told her to toss the nasty thing away and go get in her hammock because it was late. The little girl reluctantly complied as my heart jumped out of my chest. No one else paid attention.
During the lazy afternoons, I taught the little girls “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” complete with the hand motions. They learned to sing it in English, which they found funny and fascinating at the same time. Of course I translated the story for them which made them laugh and laugh. They laughed a lot, these little girls. Soon they were singing and acting it out on their own. They even performed it a few times during the evening get-togethers with the neighbors, who were very impressed.
I decided it was a good week to read the Bible. Cover to cover. I savored the Old Testament, reading and contemplating every word. Started the New Testament, but time was running short and I started skipping around a bit. I enjoyed my reading in a hammock overlooking the Pacific Ocean. While drinking beer. I had never read it before, and Holy Week seemed like a good time to do it. I also decided that being a young, blond foreigner, studiously fixating on the local Holy Book created a boundary around me that would ward off unsolicited male advances. And indeed, I often heard people commenting that the gringa spent all day reading the Bible, and must be very devout.
I loved the Old Testament. Especially the Books of Moses, It describes a society attempting to create a wide range of laws and social norms and protocols. There are a bunch of guidelines about hygiene and diet and planting and ways to resolve conflicts with neighbors and how to treat travelers. The famous stories, of course. But lots of stories and guidelines that no one talks about. And some surprisingly shocking stuff.
There is the attempt to regulate war crimes. Like if you go into war and kill all the men, but see a woman that you like, you can take her. But you can’t touch her for a month, because you have to give her a chance to mourn her family who you have slain. So you cut off her hair and fingernails,and after a month you can take her as your wife. But if she doesn’t please you, you can’t take her as a slave. Give her a few sheckles for her trouble and send her on her way.
And there is God-sanctioned abortion in the OT. How come nobody ever talks about that? Go check out Numbers 5 starting at about verse 11. So if a woman is pregnant and her husband thinks he might not be the father, he brings his wife to a priest. The priest prepares a “bitter water” in a rather complex ritual involving grains and olive oil and writing stuff on leather parchment. She then drinks the bitter water. If nothing happens, her husband is the father. But if she miscarries, somebody else is the father. How is this not a God-sanctioned abortion?
I found myself wondering how many people have ever really read this immense document. I mean, priests and pastors pick and choose sections to send their followers to, and then draw grand conclusions based on tiny little passages. Even the big stuff, like the Ten Commandments, gets uneven coverage. Everyone agrees that killing is bad, and bearing false witness is generally frowned upon. But most Christian sects are not particularly concerned about coveting your neighbor’s stuff. How many car commercials start out with someone looking longingly at a neighbor’s new vehicle? That is in the BIG TEN no can do list. Muslims take the “graven images” stuff very seriously, but Christians and Jews seem to brush that whole commandment off.
And then there are the abominations. Lots and lots of abominations. Some overlap with the big 10. There are the 7 that God really hates: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community. And then there are gobs of other abomiationns, including same sex acts, lending money to a brother and charging interest, lying with a menstruating woman, incest, using an unbalanced scale, justifying the wicked or condeming the just, offering an imperfect animal to God as a sacrifice, trafficking with demons, adultery, robbery, lying, eating rabbit or pork or shrimp. Dozens and dozens more. Some abominations get a lot of airplay, while others seem to go unnoticed. Different Christian sects pick and choose their favorites.
Lots of sex and incest and slavery and hatred for the Canaanites, mixed in with lifestyle tips and crop rotations and the responsibilities related to goat ownership. A modern editor would have instructed the author to pick a focus and edit the other stuff out. But I kind of enjoyed the non-sequential chaos. The shocking and the mundane intermingled to create a vivid portrait of a society struggling to define itself.
At night, I would curl up in my hammock, listen to the waves of the Pacific Ocean crashing just a few dozen yards away, and think about what I had read. I would imagine myself living in their world, watching the goats and harvesting the grains and pouring the olive oil and covering my hair to keep out the sand. I would imagine hiding my children’s indiscretions from my husband, so that they would not be taken to the village elders to be stoned to death. Because kids make mistakes. I would imagine setting out fresh straw for travelers to sleep after having fed them, and listened to their stories by firelight.
And in the mornings, I would wake up to the gaggle of little girls giggling and raking the sand under the palapa and gathering coconut shells for the fire that would boil the water to make the morning coffee and eggs and veggies and tortillas.
I would draw parallels and distinctions between the two realities. I would imagine gaggles of giggling girls in ancient Palestine or the deserts of Egypt or the beaches that would become the resort city of Sharm el Sheik, gathering fuel for their mother’s breakfast fire. Lives that are dominated by procuring and preparing food, keeping stuff clean while surrounded by sand, and sharing stories with neighbors by firelight.
Of course, there are more differences than similarities. But in my mind, these realities will always be intertwined. My 9 days on the beach, where I read the words that changed the world.