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True Stories by Steve Keely
Hobo Memoirs

10/21/2005
Island Capitalism

We bused to the Pacific and saw the ocean for the first time from a sandy island called Tapoblanco that felt as though it may sink at any time. It connected to the mainline by a thin wooden bridge our bus clambered over and dropped us before a stack of bricks called the island guardhouse. The young guard saluted and we inquired about showers and a stash for our packs. He pointed over a dune at the Pacific as the afternoon water truck hadn t arrived, but offered to store the gear.

We d held down a tough, grimy road for a week with no more than snatches of sleep and no bath. Salt water leaves a residue, said Diesel dripping as we exited the sea. It beats dirt, I suggested, but he entered again and again as if it would all wash away.

The sun climbed and the sand crunched hot under bare feet. We veered from the beach up to a generic hut with an attractive sign, The Cook Your Doctor. A wizened gent with even blue eyes under a white sombrero pulled a Coke from a water-filler cooler. This soda is cold, and fetching one from the cooler bottom, This one is very cold. All were tepid but satisfying through cracked lips and down into empty stomachs. How is your life? opened Diesel. I am watching my balls, the cook replied. You are a doctor too? He folded hands into lap and admitted, yes, after 25 years as a military physician he retired 20 years ago on full pension of ($45,000) to live and work the hovel café. He mailed the pension to a spreading progeny and spent the café earnings on island girls. He also made medical calls.

Diesel walked over to the guardhouse to check our luggage and returned with a report that the guard had turned white and felt awful. It came on right after we left, the fellow claimed. I found him shivering in a corner with the mop and broom. He accepted a soda but couldn t speak. The Doc was nonplussed, Coke is good for his heart. Mexicans have a word simpático that is the sum of sympathy, empathy and action. Doc right away guided me by the elbow trailed by Diesel down to the old bridge claiming there was a dive beneath. He alluded to the island s fine tequila and spoke by the trestle to a man sitting in a battered pickup with a bed crawling with hundreds of eating crabs. But Doc retraced with a long face because the liquor would arrive with the afternoon truck.

Diesel travels the world by unorthodox means in search of novel investments for his column. For example, we hoboed the Canadian Rockies and almost to Alaska last spring before he eventually blessed CN Rail whose alert bulls ad arrested and ticketed us. CN earnings profited the readers though, rising 10% in the past six months. Now we were looking for fresh deals south of the border.

Three hundred gringo tourists, Doc remarked back at the cafe, Will arrive in a few hours to swim, sun, drink and carouse into the night. They stay at Las Moches hotels and get away to the beach. There s a strong potential for American investment except, Every gringo wants to buy the whole island. I drew with a toe a one-foot square on the dirt floor. How much for this plot? It is expensive, he warned, Because the dirt is imported from Las Moches with the rest of the island surface except the beach. Consult a real estate expert, he advised. Or, ask the gringos who owned land in Baja what happened in the mid-90 s. I ll tell you. Soldiers stormed their peninsula homes and evicted them under a new law. Gringos may now marry or lease into property.

We wanted to explore paradise before the flock arrived and made signs to leave. An old Mexican inched up in the sand and asked, How are you? The proprietor retorted, I m watching my balls. We rose and he yelled at our backs, The ice truck cometh this afternoon!

There is electricity at one island end where we witnessed a teenage girl grasp a kitten by the tail and fling it on the sidewalk. She broke its leg! Diesel cried, and it was true. Many white dogs with long snoots trotted the same road and, stirred by the kitten, I launched a didactic tantrum to my cohort. There s a prevalence of small white dogs in every Latin American small town because cars strike the other colors at night under poor lighting. The long noses in this pueblo s streets are due to isolation genetics where the canines can t escape the island to breed. They re also meatier than normal indicating strong economic times.

In defiance, a black mutt with huge ears and an English-speaking Mexican capitalist sided us independently. Maybe the dog compensates with huge ears and the seller with English, proposed Diesel. Amigos , invited the vendor, Come to my tent for the best clothes bargains under the American sun. We were irresistibly drawn under a blue canopy with neat rows of ironed and hung shirts, shorts and trousers. They looked new but were used and sold cheap. He revealed his business.

I set up the canopy in a different flea market location each day of the week. Once a month with the demand I drive my pickup to Los Angeles. LA is my clothes garden! He buys high-quality used clothing by the sack from wholesale distributors and trucks back to Mexico. An inspector at Mexican customs looks in the truck bed and groans, This looks suspicious! Well, money talks in the US but money screams past the Mexican border. I pay a mordida of about $200 depending on the official and pass through. I sell the clothes to Mexicans and gringos for cash at a fraction the original new cost yet at three times my fee (plus bribe) in LA. Everyone is happy!

The clothes vendor was one of three dozen stalls on the island main road selling everything from electronics to food. Diesel sat next door to eat carne ascada and I pulled out a book. A thin man squeezed onto the bench between us despite many open seats. He produced tortillas from his pocket and used the table condiments to make fat burritos. Diesel said the guy was a good opportunist but an immoral one since he robbed the café. I left to run the gauntlet of stalls. Capitalism should run rampant in Mexico but one must come to an island to see it flourish.

While sipping Horchata in the shade, someone tapped my shoulder. I twirled to find a teen proffering ten pesos, a princely equivalent of $10, that I had dropped. He was backed by a small nosy crowd. I rewarded him with 10% and everyone was happy. In one minute, a pregnant white mutt gripping a wrapper of raw meat in long lips pranced by. If only her pups could see it. The morsel was a shortfall from a taco stand, no doubt. The meat fell unnoticed from the wrapper to the road so I retrieved it and followed the dog. It halted in the shade to discover the loss and looked about sorrowfully. I returned the treasure by fingertip, but the mongrel didn t share. Still I was content.

A dozen students in starched uniforms giggled at us at a bus stop until we paused to chat. One earnestly described the private school on Tapoblanco that catered to the moneyed families of Las Moches. Many fathers pay our boarding school tuitions by working part-time in the US. For a decade, mine has sneaked across each season to work the California melons and returned to stay with the family the rest of the year. One illegal dad once walked two days with a group a hot year in the desert when two died of thirst. The children study hard, take some English, but also find time to be silly . They were smart and fit, planned to attend university, but today felt anxious to get off the island for the regular weekend at their Las Moches homes.

Dusk caught us on a bus over the wooden bridge and off the island of working capitalists.

 

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