I had been travelling around Mexico for well over a month when I decided I would spend the last two and a half weeks of the trip in the Pacific coast resort of Puerto Escondido, except for a few days in the mountainous Chiapas city of San Cristobal.
The trip had been very interesting, and yes I saw the cliff divers in Acapulco, the widest tree in the world in El Tule, the ancient Zapotec town of Monte Alban, the famous turtle museum in Mazunte, the anthropological museum in Mexico City, the Zcalo, and also Chapultepec park.
Yet nothing quite so fascinated me as watching a lothario we'll call Sergio, a man I thought couldn't have been much younger than forty five, and who I would see each morning eating his breakfast bare-chested in a whole-food cafe on the Zicatela strip in Puerto Escondido, usually accompanied by a woman. One particular morning I was sitting in the caf having just finished eating my regular Mexican breakfast of granola, fruit salad and yogurt and French toast, and he was seated on his own at a nearby table when he asked, in Spanish, if he could borrow the butter and jam. I half comprehended and half-guessed what he was saying, and handed him the items of which I had no use.
But did he know I had no use for them I wondered? Was he so unaware that he had no interest in my own needs, so ultra-aware that he had already noticed I had finished with the items, or a man of good instincts?
This idea of ultra-awareness or unawareness is I think vital to this story, as I would watch each day as he ate breakfast with a different woman, clearly having slept with them the night before. About fifteen minutes after the butter and jam request, and as he was finishing his hot cakes, a woman we'll call Maria, who looked in her early twenties, came up to the table and sat across from him. At first I assumed she was his daughter, but a minute or two later I noticed a frown appear on her face and watched as he removed it with a kiss.
Maybe if some months before I had done the same I might not have been travelling around Mexico, but I had to accept that my timing with women has never been very good. Not that I was a man whom women found unattractive, I suppose, but attraction towards them always seemed mistimed - whether that was when in the process of getting involved with someone, being involved with them, or getting out of a relationship with them. I remember once in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, visiting a male friend, he introduced me to a cousin of his and the three of us went to see a film, ate at a restaurant, and then afterwards he went back to the flat and I stayed out with Tanya. As she explained to me all the things I'd missed in the film due to my complete ignorance of Serb-Croat, we got steadily drunk. As she leaned towards me across the small table in a gesture that I later interpreted to mean she wanted a kiss, so I leaned back slightly and asked her another question about the film. I think she took this as a rejection, and shortly after we drank up and went outside to get a taxi. The taxi driver dropped me off at my friend's flat; Tanya carried on home.
This is obviously an insignificant event, but there have been a number of occasions where my timing has robbed me of an opportunity of intimacy, even of love. In Tanya's case it would have been no more than a casual fling - I was in Slovenia only for a week before going on to Dubrovnik for another friend's art opening. Yet I found her lovely, warm and pretty, and I still remember her grey-blue eyes and her wide, thin-lipped mouth as she leaned across the table and I stupidly asked a question irrelevant next to the possibility of a kiss.
Another example from a couple of years later was requited and yet still the timing was wrong. In Edinburgh, where I live, some years ago I was at a friend's thirtieth birthday party, a ceilidh, and people came from all over Britain and beyond. One of them I danced with all evening, and I felt an affinity with her that wasn't intellectual - as I suspect it would have been with Tanya - but physical. As Susan and I danced frenetically, as sweat poured off my forehead, so it seemed likely we would combine this enthusiasm for each other's physical company back at my flat. It didn't even seem to require thought or motivation, and I'm not even sure how we got back there: whether I had asked her, or if she had asked me.
But the following day over breakfast, as I wondered when was going back to York, she said not until the Monday - it was then Sunday morning. There was a pause, and in that pause I knew I should have filled it with the offer of spending the day together, showing her some of the Edinburgh sights.
Instead I waited, and thought about what I had planned to do that day. In the meantime, in those fifteen or so seconds, she had made up her own mind, and said that she would meet a cousin of hers, in town.
The third example of failed timing I'll give is partly why I was on this trip alone. A couple of months ago, when I suggested to the person whom I'd been seeing for six months, that I was thinking of going to Latin America, and she asked if I wanted to go without her, I once again hesitated. I did so not because I didn't want Angela to come; more that I assumed that she wouldn't want to. Yet she interpreted my silence as a rejection, and a couple of weeks later we stopped seeing each other.
So, as I've suggested, I have always had a problem with timing, and if I admired this man who looked in his mid-forties and perhaps even fifty, it wasn't that he was going out with a much younger woman, more that, the moment this young woman looked disappointed with him, he offered the right gesture at the right time.
I expected to see them again, either in the same caf or at another along this thin strip of beach, with numerous cafes and restaurants along it. This was basically the surfing beach, whose waves were so impressive, and whose currents so strong, that swimming in the water wasn't recommended. I was staying on the other side, the resort town, which also had a beach where you could swim, but late one afternoon, getting out of the water, I noticed a dog squatting nearby and defecating by the shore as the tide came in and swept the excrement into the water. After that I would walk each day to a beach a couple of miles out of town, a beach I had never heard of until I asked at the hostel for an alternative to the town one. It was situated in a beautiful cove, and I was almost alone.
Yet I would still often walk to Zicatela where the best cafes and restaurants were, and it was a couple of days later, in the afternoon, where I saw Sergio sitting in a caf reading a book, though with the distracted air of someone waiting rather than reading. Behind him was a surf board, and it looked like he was reading a book about surfing to judge by the cover I could just about make out.
I looked at his face and saw a long, lined, even slightly ravaged visage that seemed to counter the smoothness of his body language. He was, I had noticed that other morning, tall, with very little fat, even around his waist, and long, slightly straw-like hair that reached down to his shoulders but that didn't quite sit as well as it should. It made him resemble less a surfer in the 2000s than a rocker in the seventies: a dinosaur of surf.
A few minutes later I noticed walking towards the caf his young partner. Her walk seemed to be that of a desultory late teenager, and if I hadn't seen them together that morning I would have assumed it was a daughter approaching her father. She was not very tall and had a low centre of gravity that perhaps removed grace from her walk, but her face was well-shaped, a nice oval, and her skin utterly fresh and radiant from a light, olive tan. As she approached the table she didn't seem especially happy, but again he quickly assuaged her, taking her hand in his, and obviously reassuring her of any doubts she possessed.
For several days I left Puerto Escondido, and headed for a town in the mountains hundreds of miles away not in Oaxaca state but Chiapas - to the aforementioned San Cristobal. I probably would have stayed longer in the town but I'd paid for a total of twelve days at the hostel in Puerto, and had only four spare days left of my trip. San Cristobal was cold when I arrived at seven in the morning after a twelve hour bus ride, and the air-conditioned coolness of the bus was more than matched by the crisp, April morning. As I got a taxi to the square in the centre, and then walked along Rue de Guadeloupe looking for a place to stay, I booked into the Casa Margarita. Even the few minutes finding Rue de Guadeloupe and walking along it dressed as I was in more or less beachwear: T-shirt, shorts and sandals - left me in need of a hot shower. Afterwards, I spent the morning walking around, trying a get a sense of and give shape to this high plateau town with its narrow streets and pavements surprisingly high considering the Mexicans are not a tall people. Several times I anticipated a European pavement and dropped a couple of inches further than I expected.
But then ever since arriving in Mexico I had felt strangely clumsy. Now obviously I've already talked of my sense of timing in relation to women. But at least in relation to my own body I was usually adept. Yet during my first week in Puerto I'd managed to stub my toe, to bang my head against a low sign - though presumably average height for a Mexican - and crawled onto a rock only to be caught by a huge wave that flung me off the rock and onto others. As I tried to scramble up the rocks I got thrown against them a further three times, finally making it onto dry land with a cut foot and ankle, and a few grazes. Had I reached such a level of sensory-motor inadequacy that I managed to add physical incompetence to emotional ineptitude?
It was in San Cristobal where I first sensed the middle-aged womanizer's ways - I saw Maria on several occasions during my visit to the town and not once was she with her lover. As she looked disconsolate, slightly aimless and her low centre of gravity now consistent with her demeanour, she herself seemed somehow clumsy. As I saw her wandering around the university in the town centre, I found myself musing over whether her trip had already been ruined. Once, as I was sitting in a place called Centro Caf, I watched as she sipped her coffee and, as she looked up, I met her gaze before she simply looked away. Was she ashamed that I had caught her looking at me, ashamed generally because her boyfriend, I mused, had gone off with other women, or embarrassed as she recognized me from Puerto and the times I had seen her with her lover?
On my first evening back in Puerto, I saw Sergio with another woman, this time perhaps in her late twenties, and offering in his body language almost identical gestures as those he offered Maria. Over the next three or four days I watched him, as each morning at breakfast with a different woman at either Il Jardin or Cafecitio he would smile and charm the woman with whom he had no doubt been with the night before.
By now I had only three nights left of my stay, and I wanted to know more about this man who seemed to have no qualms about the waiting staff seeing him go through almost identical motions with who knows how many women. Surely this gesture some days before, where he asked for my butter and jam, was insensitivity rather than sensitivity. However, he never seemed to treat any of the women with contempt, and how he managed to get rid of them I didn't know. None of these women I saw again - they presumably left Puerto after their night with Sergio.
The following day, two days before I was to leave, I saw, walking along the beach, Maria, looking neither happy nor sad, simply with a contemplative look on her face. Later the same day, in the early evening in a caf not far from the beach on the Zicatala side, I saw her again sitting in the caf, again looking neither happy nor sad, and this time, as I caught her look, I went over and asked her, in a mixture of Spanish and English, that I kept seeing her, even in San Cristobal.
She didn't seem to assume I was trying to chat her up, though I suppose over the last few weeks travelling around Mexico I had noticed a number of people in different places on several occasions. It was the nature of contemporary travel: Lonely Planet tourism where people would end up in the same hostels, cafes and museums in Mexico City, Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca and San Cristobal.
I think what I offered was what she could offer to me: a certain curiosity towards another human being, a curiosity too often and too quickly expelled by the need to seduce the other person, or to assuage their loneliness with makeshift friendships.
Why was I travelling so alone she asked me? Every time she had seen me I was by myself. Sure many people start their travels on their own, but within a day or two at any hostel they are staying in they have made pragmatic acquaintances, befriended some people for the few days they were in that particular place.
I hadn't really given this much thought, but she was right. Often I would see someone arrive in the morning at the hostel alone; see them eating out with other hostellers in the evening, and swimming with them on the beach the next day. Was my solitariness connected to my failed timing? I had a number of good friends, but I got to know them over many months, even years, and a few of them admitted that their initial impression was quite different from the person I turned out to be. Some said I was aloof, difficult to talk to.
Yet here Maria and I had been talking for thirty minutes and, after two or three prompts from me, she started to talk about Sergio and how she should, relatively speaking, have felt flattered by his attention: he was a womanizer who had stayed with her for four days; usually he slept with a woman once and then moved on. I asked why he did it. She suspected it wasn't always due to the woman: often he was probably afraid he himself would seem boring. He was very charming, but it was an immediate charm. It wasn't based on what he saw in the present, it wasn't based on saying original things, making immediate observations. It was based on telling people about his past adventures. He had maybe twenty or thirty good stories, but by the third day with her he was beginning to repeat himself. He also, she added, wasn't very good at asking questions. He could put a woman at her ease, could easily get them into bed, but he didn't know how to know them.
She said when Sergio thought it was time for her to move on somewhere else, that as a traveller she had been in Puerto too long (she had been at that moment there a week) and that she should keep travelling, this was his way of ending the situation. At first she was hurt, and it wasn't until she had been in San Cristobal for a couple of days that she started to feel relieved. Sergio was she realised a claustrophobic character: he didn't open up the world to others, he shrank it, and, during those days with him, she never once left the small stretch of Zicatela. They went to the same cafes - El Jardin, and Cafecito, and the same bar, Casa Babylon. During much of the day they would lie on the beach, or he would go surfing. When they talked over dinner or breakfast, it was Sergio telling stories.
As we ourselves sat in Cafecito, I asked her if perhaps she was saying this resentfully, and she replied that wasn't the case. That in the time she had talked to me, she had already expressed herself more than in all the time she had spent with him. Over the next couple of days we would meet up in the afternoons and have a cup of coffee or a juice, go our own way for a few hours, and then meet up again for dinner. If my timing as I've suggested has generally been inept, my skill at asking the right questions has often been commented upon.
Over those last three days in Puerto I had asked her about her own past as well as Sergio's. She was twenty one, she said, and Sergio forty five. She was travelling for several months, and intended to get as far south as Buenos Aires. The following September she was studying Hispanic literature in Madrid. It had been Sergio's subject as well, though he never pursued his studies beyond his degree, and had devoted himself to choosing big waves and running a small surf school in Puerto.
Initially they had talked about literature - they had met one evening in Casa Babylon - but though he had read Borges, Garcia Marquez, Vargos Llosa, Paz and Fuentes, it hadn't been for many years. When she talked about literature, she said it wasn't enough to recount the book and comment on admiring the prose. She wanted to differentiate one writer from the next. I had only read Garcia Marquez and Borges of the dozen or so writers she mentioned, and I wasn't sure if anything I had to say about them would have stimulated her. But I was reminded of a story a friend told me, and I offered it up.
A couple of years ago my friend, I said, was in a bar in Boston when he started chatting up what turned out to be an M.I.T. student. She told him he could have a date if he could answer an equation, and as he obviously looked flummoxed, he suggested that she wasn't being fair. Anyway, he said, even if he could have answered it what would he be adding to anything. She herself knew the answer, didn't she? She nodded, and he asked her what her favourite book was: she said it was Hardy's Jude the Obscure. He talked to her about the book for fifteen minutes, and at one moment she reckoned she responded so strongly to the book because she could see an aspect of Jude in herself: wasn't she the poor student given the opportunity denied Jude?
My friend I added was a literature teacher from Britain. He provided a social and literary context for the book, and this, she admitted, she could not have provided herself. She asked him why he thought her background was not comfortable (he had alluded to it moments before she explicitly stated her parents were working class): he said that, like her, he loved the book, and, like her, he felt the need to base his personality on intelligence.
I looked across at Maria and she asked as she finished her breakfast whether this had happened to a friend of mine or whether I was talking about myself. It was true I had also done a literature degree, but like her lothario friend I had not pursued my studies beyond it.
She smiled, believing me, especially when I added that the Jude lovers were soon to be married. A story with a happy ending, she said, finally, but without a smile on her on face as her eyes drifted off into an apparently arbitrary direction.
I thought it was so because of the memory of her own brief fling, but it was less memory than presence - as I started to look at where she was looking, I saw Sergio coming in with another woman. He seemed to be looking as much at me as at Maria, and I wondered if he had been standing there for long, waiting to enter the caf not necessarily because he would be embarrassed seeing Maria again - and with a girl he no doubt had slept with the night before - but to observe Maria with another man. As I looked at his face, and as he looked at mine, which was fifteen years younger - it registered I believed less embarrassment than a low key sense of longing. It was as if he knew that I understood something about Maria that he would never comprehend, and maybe understood something about women generally that he would never know.
The following day I was to fly back to Mexico City, and then to London. It would be unlikely Maria and I would have slept together if the pass hadn't been made by her. Why that would be so I couldn't quite explain, but it didn't mean my relative celibacy - five lovers in ten years - did not contain a principle much more rewarding to me than perhaps Sergio's was to him.
At least if that look on his face told me anything about him, as I wondered if he now recalled I was the stranger who about ten days before had asked for the butter and jam. Was I invisible before and visible now, but present to him in a way that had nothing to do with what I looked like, but how Maria appeared sitting across from me? That moment where I thought I had lost her attention but where she was actually looking in the direction of Sergio, was the first occasion in all the time we had talked where I thought her mind had drifted. I recall that when I would see her with Sergio that look away from the dead centre of their presence in each other's company was frequent.
Sergio may have been the master of a certain type of timing, but as he stumbled into one of his many conquests engaged in an apparently very different way with another man, I wondered if he felt a certain sense of jealousy, a sense that Maria was being unfaithful to him not in deed, but somehow in mode. That she was sitting there talking to another man in such a way that Sergio could never emulate. I looked at Maria, who offered a complicit smile, and we both looked across at Sergio as he guided the woman back out of the caf, doing so a little clumsily as if somehow he had lost, however briefly, his own sense of timing.
© Tony McKibbin