“If home is where the heart is, you’ll find mine in pieces along the road.”
This is not my city. I have never lived here. I come for supplies, groceries, meals, communication with the outside world, and the occasional event, and then I move on. But Mulegé (pronounced Moo-leh-hay) is where I once left a big chunk of my heart and in Mulegé it will remain.
Life on the road is a life overflowing with lessons, whether you want them or not. When you travel with friends, as Prez and I have often done, one of these lessons is that you get to see places through the eyes of others. It hasn’t escaped my notice, in the past few years, that how newcomers see Mulegé and how I see it are two very different experiences.
I don’t see Mulegé through rose coloured glasses. It is a small, dusty, crumbling little city. We used to joke that they couldn’t even afford a new population sign so every time there were more than 3111 residents someone would have to leave. (Last year we arrived to see that they had, in fact, gotten themselves a brand new sign…but it still reads Population 3111).
How I see Mulegé is not through my eyes at all but through my heart and soul.
Some places speak to us. Mulegé spoke to me from the moment I set foot on its dangerously high and uneven sidewalks. There was just something unflinchingly real and wonderfully quirky about it. Imagine you are at a party and the guests are all Baja cities. Ensenada would be the slick, quick-talking timeshare salesperson; Tijuana the shifty guy in the corner you suspect is a drug dealer; La Paz is the quietly smug art history professor; Cabo is the drunk, bottle-blonde with fake tits and a skin-tight dress. Mulegé is just some guy who drives a taxi, has a wife and a couple of kids, and enjoys some weird hobby like clogging or macramé. Mulegé isn’t perfect but he’s genuine.
Since 1998, I have watched Mulegé’s rollercoaster existence. There are boom years, when tourism is high, money’s flowing, and new businesses pop up seemingly overnight. But, inevitably, the bust years come: 9/11, swine flu scares, bad press about the cartels, hurricanes and floods, etc. The store shelves empty, doors close and never re-open, a thousand dreams are scattered to the desert sands. Talk to the old timers and you will soon discover that this has been Mulegé’s pattern for years. High on a hill, you can still wander through the ruins of Hotel Rancho Loma Linda that once hosted John Wayne, Jayne Mansfield, Earl Stanley Gardner, and a bevvy of other big names, back before the sport fishing was all but wiped out and it was easy to zoom in via private plane.
Through it all, the citizens of this city—the Muleginos—carry on.
When I look at Mulegé, I remember driving in to pick up or send faxes (our only connection with civilization until internet arrived) and the cranky woman who worked at the fax store, who we used to dread. I remember the night we heard about the new pizza restaurant and made the thirty minute trek for a little slice of home…a slice that would take almost two hours to appear on our plates. I remember the little tienda that had a giant set of dried bull testicles hanging from the ceiling.
I remember Rudolpho, the old former mariachi who was so hunched over he was nearly bent in half and his daily snail’s-pace walk through town. I remember lumbering through the streets in our big, rusted-yellow, 1972 Suburban with fish and “CLUB FRED” painted on each side and how everyone would call out and wave as we drove past. I remember Ruth-Anne Quarles’ birthday at Los Equipales, when the cake came out and the baker accidentally put her husband Harry’s name on it. I remember epic grocery shopping trips, hopping from store to store for hours just trying to get the basics and the elation on those days when I’d find REAL BUTTER! And the side roads, the streets that we’d discover and wonder how we’d never known such a street existed in such a small city, I remember those. I see all this every time I see Mulege.
And I forget.
I forget that these are my memories and I cannot show them to new people laying eyes on dusty, crumbling, old Mulege for the first time. But I can see, in their eyes, the disappointment. Prez and I have waxed long and passionately about this little gem, we have built expectations, we have painted a city that must be straight out of a fairy tale. Where is it? they must wonder, Where is this idyllic Rockwellesque village we have heard about?
Today, Mulegé is just barely recovering from a series of devastating hurricanes and storms. The city and surrounding areas are battle-scarred and tired. This is nothing new, nothing we haven’t seen before, but it doesn’t make for the best first impression, I must admit.
I do not like to look at Mulegé through new eyes. I choose not to. Perhaps this is childish of me but I prefer my version.
There are plenty of Baja towns out there for everyone else. Towns with quaint cafes and shops full of art and bakeries and ice cream shops. There are towns with clean streets and wide malecons for seaside strolls. There are towns that belong on postcards and glossy travel agent brochures. I will visit some of these other towns and enjoy what they have to offer but I will be always be a tourist there.
This is not my city. I have never lived here. But Mulegé is what my heart wants and that makes it home.
Until next time, I hope this finds you healthy, happy & lovin’ life, no matter what your heart wants!