Life In The Palapa
By Justin Porter Biel
My eyes open, thrust awake from the depths of a dream I cannot remember. Senses are blurred and everything is unfamiliar. I awaken in a fit of confusion, lost in some new place, where normalcy doesn’t exist.
What country is this? Whose bed is this? Where is this?
I scan the world, trying to make sense of the surroundings.
There’s little to discern; brick walls beside my face, the whirring of an industrial fan passing over my body, wind cutting across dried leaves, and a warm half-covered body under a sheet. Eyes focus and a face comes into view, formulating into a cohesive shape and form. I see her. The dark skinned woman, high cheekbones, with large doe eyes. Her scent grounds me, but sleep pulls me down, the dream world tempting me to return. I almost let it take me, but then I hear it again.
It’s a crushing, trampling sound, like something has landed on the roof above my head. I sit straight up, eyes frozen on the underside of the palapa roof. Fully awake now, it all comes back; the road trip through the Baja, the small colonial town with the square and the church, the dusty roads outside Todos Santos, my palapa home with the mango trees, the hibiscus plants, and the fresh rosemary in the garden. I am home and safe. Everything is as it should be. Still, I cannot figure out one thing.
What the hell is on my roof?
Dark espresso drips into a tiny cup. I add a half-scoop of golden sugar and stir. Taking a sip I stare out the window of the palapa. Beside the Pacific, on a hill with dirt, cactus and wildflowers, the day is just beginning. The world is awakening in the space between darkness and light. I remain still, as quiet as I can. I don’t want to miss anything. I want to hear it all.
The music of Mexico has just begun. Roosters call out in hoarse, raspy voices and the barking of dogs echo’s across the valley. The birds’ take a turn, their melodies more beautiful than the rest. They fly and sing past my window while the sun continues to rise. Low lying insects hum and buzz, and scratch the dew off their tiny, rigid wings.
Startled, I stand up from my desk, sweating in the morning heat and walk to the kitchen door. Peering out through the bug screen, I look into the yard. Woven hammocks twist in the breeze under a covered deck beside a table and chairs. Just then, I hear it again – the unmistakable neighing of a horse.
I look behind the fence toward the back of the house. A wild brown colt is standing there, his head poking over a hedge, his eyes big and wet and black. He’s thin, his rib cage exposed, his knees bony and covered with small sores. He stares at me, his mane shining and shaking upon his muscular, bristled neck. As I approach, he drops his head and bites at dry grass with spotted lips and stained yellow teeth. Done eating, he extends his head over the fence in my direction. There are burrs stuck to the sides of his mouth.
I go inside and return with a handful of carrots. I offer them to the colt, my hand flat and open, pushed through the fence. He snatches them up, crushing them between his large teeth, the muscles in his jaw rippling. He eats every last one and then raises his head. I rub a hand along the length of his jaw as he swallows the remaining bits of food. I pull burrs from his lips until he saunters off. I keep an eye on him after he’s left, watching as he wanders on the desolate hillside.
I’m headed towards Cerritos for to surf, bumping down a dirt road when I pass a grey F-250. Inside there are two tan-skinned men hanging out the windows, their arms waving erratically. I check my speed and they continue to wave, making larger motions with their hands. I lower the music, hit the brake, and roll down the window. They reverse the truck in my direction, a cloud of dust encompassing my car as they skid to a stop.
“Fresh fish bro?” says the man.
He’s wearing a baseball cap and dark sunglasses. Long, sun-bleached hair falls over his shoulders.
“Speared it just a few hours ago.”
He pulls a cooler from the back of his truck. It’s filled ice, Tecate lights, and vacuum-sealed packages of striped grouper. I buy a bag with two filets for dinner, paying close attention while they offer cooking instructions.
“Throw on a little olive oil, lemon and garlic,” says the man. “Low heat, four minutes on each side. That’s all you need. Enjoy.”
It’s hotter in the afternoons now. August has brought more humidity and temperatures into the nineties. In the distance, big black storm clouds hang over the mountains, but still, there is no rain.
Inside the palapa, my fingers click away at a keyboard. I’m done with my work for school and halfway through a piece for Destino Magazine. Today, I’m writing about life in the Palapa. My fiancé thinks people will be interested in how we live. I’m not totally convinced.
I pull my fingers off the laptop and stare at the words on the page.
Will anyone care about my daily routine? Is it really all that different? Is it really worth writing about?
I’m pondering this question when two lizards fall from the ceiling. One lands directly on the keyboard. The other thumps down on the side of the desk. I’m not sure who is more stunned, the lizards, or me, but I am the only one who screams. The reptiles recover quickly and split directions, climbing up the brick walls toward the palapa roof. I’m left breathing hard and laughing and taking the lords name in vain. My fiancé hears the commotion.
“What’s going on over there?” She says.
“Lizards are falling from the ceiling.”
“See,” she says, “It’s a sign.”
Striped grouper sizzles in a pan on a hot stove. The aroma of fish and garlic and steamed vegetables fill the house and fresh tortillas are cooking in oil. I’m washing the dishes, my hands covered in soap and water. Rose is by the stove, flipping tortillas. When the food is done, Rose pulls out a bottle of red wine.
Just as we sit down to eat the dogs appear. The small one, Linda, arrives first. She is white and tan with short hair. Outside the screen door her body wiggles in anticipation, her nimble spine twisting from side to side with the wagging of her tail. She seems to have the better nose of the two, as she always arrives first. The larger one, Pecas, shows up a few moments later. He has a golden-brown coat, black spots on his tongue and resembles a miniature lion. They look inside expectantly while we finish the meal, with Pecas disappearing once or twice to check the trash.
After dinner I bring fish out to the dogs. They chomp down the bits, licking their mouths, and then head back out the front gate, running off in the direction of the hotel where I’ve heard they live.
I’m driving a four-wheeler on a deserted beach 10 minutes from our house. Rose is sitting on the back. The air is warm and treaded tires pull easily through the sand below. I pull to a stop besides a large dune. We both get off and walk together in the direction of the sunset. Over the Pacific, the sun is receding, the dark seas consuming all but the last traces of orange.