Little Altars of Faith

Sometimes we don’t know why we need to follow the impulse to go where we’re called…we just go. This is the nudge I felt toward visiting Todos Santos, Baja California. My husband wanted to take a surf trip down to Baja last year and I recalled a client of mine talking about this funky, hippy oasis in Baja a couple of years prior. She and her husband had been thinking about moving here and through astrocartography -the study a person’s natal planetary lines through place- I discouraged her to settle in Todos Santos. She didn’t. Yet my own curiosity was peaked. I found Todos Santos on the map and we constructed a trip arranged around the little town I am writing you from right now – the city’s name translates as “All Saints”.

Here we are again, a second trip in two years. We’re visiting during low season again, and from la turistas who have only visited here during high season, a quieter town. Many shops say they’re open, abierto, but don’t bother. The yoga retreats apparently take place in the spring. So do the art and wine festivals, open houses, poetry conferences and writer retreats. Organic produce, while bragged about in the town paper, is hard to come by. In fact, fresh produce has all but gone extinct. When we arrived last Monday, the weather was still mild. Now it’s getting hot, testimony to our “good” room rates. As we walk past the numerous, strangely identical mutts, they’re too dog tired to bark. A thick coat of dust covers everything. The neighborhood kids come over, splash and play, washing that dust and grime off in our hotel pool, a greasy film floating atop sea green milky water – when it’s open. Every other full day it’s closed for cleaning, of course.

And we’re happy to be here, sinking into the lazy rhythm of trips to the beach, to the town grocer, the beach of the wolves, Punta Lobos, to watch our dinner come in on boats. We’re vegetarians, all, but when we travel, we eat what the locals eat. One vegetarian teenager doesn’t want to see the gutting of the pescado and says she’ll stay in the car. Curiosity takes over, and soon she’s watching too, kicking at the sand, stealing sideways glances as the fish meets its death, a fish out of water surrendering its life for ours. We prepare the fish pan fried, with butter and lime later that day. We intend to eat it as a taco, as the countless fish taco stands have created the hankering for constant intake of fish taco. But this fish is so fresh we eat it plainly, simply.

When we drive, there are altars everywhere, shrines along the dusty single lane roads. For a country with very little means, I’m again pleasantly surprised by the artfulness of the altars, the careful attention given to the dead. In these idyllic chapel structures, the flowers always appear fresh – even the fake ones. It’s no illusion that someone comes out to the middle of nowhere, a place without a town, mile marker 54, to mindfully care for the sanctuario. Cars regularly stop at these sites, prayers are said, tributes made to loved ones lost on a dark desert highway

Yes, this is the land of the dark desert highway. The famed Hotel California exists in Todos Santos. Urban legend says the Eagles wrote Hotel California on a trip to Todos Santos, which Don Henley, when asked by a reporter if this was true, denied. Hotel California is a wee taste of hype, in a land less touched by California’s glamour than its money. The Baja relationship to gringos is one like any other international relationship – economic. The real estate is California-priced, so are the T-Bone steaks, so too other indulgences a California traveler might require. The town has one beauty salon, newly occupied since last year, but the young trend-setting proprietor looks hot and restless, hanging out on the sidewalk. She’ll join other shop owners on the corner where they gather under the shade of an umbrella to smoke and watch the gringos walk by. We’ve met scant few gringos, a few we’ve met at the hotel, or overheard talking about real estate at the restaurants.

And the real estate of the desert, what does that look like? It’s sparse, dry, but it quietly exists, too. I remind myself that this too supports life forms of which I have yet to see. The Sometimes a chinchilla or a lizard darts across the road. I’m thrilled when the occasional bright red or magenta flower emerges from the bleached landscape, usually on a cactus that looks half alive. I see this as a hopeful symbol for life. Life does survive against all odds, bloom even, in a harsh food-less, water less desert. Does the bloom of a cactus know faith? On stretches of highway, the cacti look like people in various life stages. I see the bone dry cacti as abuellos, ancient grandfathers of the desert. I imagine their personalities: wise, sturdy, withstanding. The skeletal grandfathers bear witness to the life of the desert, almost as hidden from me as life under the sea. It’s a mysterious world of spirits out here.

Not all who wander are lost…the Sagittarian journey through Budapest continues

After currency exchange is accomplished, chaos ensues – that kind of disorientation that every Sagittarius sun sign experiences via their favorite pastime and hobby – the culture shock of travel. This is not a completely voluntary phenomenon. Sagittarius often travels because they feel like they were born of a different age, era or tribe. It’s the sense of being a stranger in a strange land that compels them to wander the globe to find their people or place. Many find their true tribe far away from home. Others find solace in a religious group, counter culture or politic. Looking around me in the train station, I wonder how many people who live in Hungary are immigrants, and how many Hungarians have emigrated, left their own home for a safer, saner life.

How different this country is from the beautiful, civilized city of Vienna only a brief train ride away. My romantic notions of grandeur were fading. What happened to the grand promise of this city, once favored by Austrian Prince Franz Joseph as “the next Vienna?” Just like a person, to know a country’s history is to know its character. Late 19th- early 20th century Budapest was grand – accepting immigrants from Poland and Russia with promise of legal equality and a better life. Urban development boomed and Budapest became the hub of a railway system, joining lands and welcoming minorities. But diversity would be its downfall, as the Prime Minister declared only Hungarian would be taught in all the schools so only those who could speak Hungarian would ultimately thrive here. WWII ethno-centrism was just beginning to rear its ugly head. During the brief “golden years” that followed, Pest especially became a spot for art and literature as cafes bustled with bohemian thinkers. Hungarian food, (goulash, which is in fact amazingly tasty!), became the fad for worldly “foodies.” But golden years ended at WWII’s arrival. After the Russians destroyed what was left of the Hungarian army, they occupied Pest while the Germans took opposite camp at Buda Castle. Any Hungarians who could escape fled; for those remaining, the bloodshed was medieval. When the Germans surrendered in 1945, there was nothing left standing – all bridges crossing the Danube had been destroyed.

But this isn’t the end of the freedom fight. Hungary’s Sagittarian hunger for political independence was still going strong. The Hungarian revolution against the Communist regime in the 1950’s was possibly the saddest time in Hungarian history. After suffering years of communist corruption, violence and repression Hungary wanted the old Hungary back. A student uprising in 1956 resulted in 5 days of celebratory freedom – a 33 year long teaser. While the rest of the world was distracted by the Suez Canal crisis, Moscow sent down their troops, attacked civilians. Without an army, civilians became soldiers, throwing Molotov cocktails under Russian tanks. Again, where was the rest of the world? This country, this city of Budapest seemed to be eternally under siege – friendless, freedomless, ultimately strangers in their own land.

The lure of the exotic

Budapest is a Sagittarius city, Hungary a Sagittarius country (Lilly, Dariot), the astrological sign of the foreigner, priest, wanderer and teacher. As the sign where wisdom is acquired on the zodiac wheel, after the dark night of the soul of the Scorpio and before the wise elder of Capricorn, Sag’s task is daunting. How can we ever grow in wisdom without suffering? We’ve left Scorpio’s intense emotional waters and must learn to walk the long, dry desert of Capricorn without. What happens when we look up in the night sky and there is no guiding light? We learn to survive on faith.

Hardly exotic sounding, is it? No, this is exotic in the original meaning of the world. Exotic simply means different, not the flower behind your ear or the smell of some fabulous “exotic” scent. And depending on your surroundings, exotic can feel either stimulating, fascinating, as in a holiday to some place you’ve never before visited or completely, utterly bewildering. My experience has been both.

Sagittarius also sits across from and so opposes Gemini. If Gemini is the friendly character who owns your corner store, your sibling, your neighbor and kin who speaks your language (think immigrant cities like New York and London, Gemini both) Sagittarius is the stranger who you cross paths with but do not understand – without effort if at all. Yes, it will be difficult to communicate and understand one another. On an elementary level, language is the people connector, the copper cable over which the waves of understanding travel. Budapest is bordered by Austria, Croatia, Romania, all non-Hungarian speaking countries and the Hungarian language has Finnish roots! Reading the guidebook, I learn that out of all European languages, Hungarian resembles none. Nada. This proves challenging for European and English speaking travelers alike. So you can imagine what it’s like to arrive at the busy train station in Budapest for the very first time – absolutely disorienting!

I missed the boat to Budapest

After talking with our Viennese friends, we decide to the remaining few days of our trip on a quick jaunt to a neighboring country. Prague? Greece? Budapest. I don’t know why I’m so captivated by the thought of visiting this east meets west city straddling the Danube, once the most important hub for trade Actually, they’re two distinctly different cities – Buda and Pest. It sounds so exotic. When I think of visiting, I imagine myself as the teenaged heroine of a childhood novel I must’ve read, being sent off for holiday from her boarding school, to the orient to meet her diplomat parents. I’m wearing a late 19th century dress petticoats and a traveling hat, looking through the window of my train on this strange city. Could it be a past life connection, or am I under a spell? This fantasy, this strange magic magnetism is so compelling that I override my husband’s desire to go to the Austrian mountains, hike and spa (which sounds like a little slice of heaven after the past few days city living) by continually offering Budapest as a better suggestion. A recommendation from his Viennese colleague reinforces my wish – Budapest’s hustle and bustle is young, alive, not to be missed.

The reality is we missed the boat to Budapest. So we caught the train. I misread the travel site (“no reserved seats” does not mean “no advance tickets”) and of the 60+ passengers, 6 of which have no tickets, we are the only two people who do not make it on the boat. And we have a hotel room booked for 2 nts. in Budapest, not Vienna. We find out where the train station is and bags in tow, sit down in an internet cafe, waiting 2 hours for the next train. This is a sign, I think, of unexpected changes to come. And maybe, just like my fantasy, I am supposed to be on the train to Budapest. The boat to Budapest was not meant to be.

Sex, Candy and Freud…not necessarily in that order

Shopping, chocolate, lingerie stores (Palmers, Europes Victorias Secret, literally on every other block) and a visit to the psychoanalyst could a woman want for more? Oh, then theres the shopping. For this city of window shoppers, Merchants cram as much as they can in the windows and doorways for the Sunday (nothing is open) and evening strollers. Although businesses close early (Vienna makes serious business of leisure) you can still shop. The prices are conveniently posted next to everything you can price and pick out your items and return when they open. Candy making is an art form here, also eating sweet tortes, marzipan or a fancy fruit concoction with your morning, afternoon and evening coffee (trust me, 3 times a charm). Evidently, Libra has a weakness for sweets. Evidently.
As Im writing I hear those old familiar sounds, the steadily increasing rhythm of moans echoing between the buildings. Im continually trying to distinguish the audible difference between pigeon and human lovemaking noises. Or it could be someone having a seizure, Goddess bless em. What is that sound? The flapping of wings generally clears it up, but not always. Those could be thighs, slapping together.
Yes there’s Sigmund Freud, lingerie shops and the occasional shocking show of tongue. Which brings us round to Libra’s ruling planet, Venus, in the sign of Scorpio in Vienna. As the founding father of psychoanalysis, Freud had his first office here, a trip to the Freud Museum was a must see. I found Freud’s home rather dark and dreary. And the tour was dry, 6 mostly empty rooms full of scientific papers, diplomas and certificates and photographs of Freudian friends and family on the wall. There were cute pictures of an older, Cancer-ridden Dr. lounging in garden villas with his Frau, daughter, and loyal doggies. The pictures indicate he was a flower and nature lover, although his ‘obsessions’ (their quotes) were: traveling, smoking and collecting. Someone forgot to include the juicy stuff maybe some patient notes or Freud’s diary of sex dreams? Neine! In Freud’s office, sexuality was (and remains) discussed in polite discourse, just like I’d-rather-talk-about-sex-than-actually have-it-Libra. The couch was the first ever used in psychoanalysis. This new intimacy was risky in this strictly business relationship. Freud found, when reclining, people were more easily able to free associate. Here’s a free association: when you lay down to relax you’re usually taking your clothes off. Discussions on oral fixations and Oedipal syndromes only – nothing suspicious going on here, Bill. See my library shelves full of books on the subject? Psychoanalysis and sex: both Venus in Scorpio preoccupations, and both done in a Libran, I’ll keep my clothes on fashion. This reminds me of a Details magazine survey I recently read. Women were asked if they’d rather forego a month without their favorite clothing items or 3 months without sex. They chose to forego sex. (All hail Details. Men may be simple creatures, but in our way, so are we.). I propose a similar question: Would you rather have a session with a fabulous psychotherapist or a mind-blowing orgasm? Most women would choose therapy. What do you think?

Before Sunrise

Vienna is a romantic Libra city. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke fell in love in Vienna in the movie Before Sunrise. Was it true love or romantic love? Was it the ambience of art & culture, street performers and cafes, cobblestone streets and breathtaking churches? Maybe a boat ride on the Blue Danube River or an Einspanner coffee shared over a Sachre torte at daybreak? What makes a city romantic? I pondered this question last night in an open air café, where we ate bio salads. (We think ‘bio’ means organic which goes to show you, you can take the person away from California, but you can’t take the California out of the person.), John ordered spelt wheat beer and when I couldn’t decide what to order, the kind waitress took one look at my bleary face and asked, would I like her to make me a special drink? Examining my bleary eyed disposition, she knew a coconut, guarana and rosemary concoction would improve my concentration. I laughed at her good call. Sipping on its sweetness, I notice a high-heeled woman struggles to navigate the deeply grooved cobblestone streets. (A personal shout out to all the gorgeous worldly women who walk around looking beautiful and unhappy – it’s probably her shoes.) Perking up, I asked my husband his opinion on the romance of the city. The lighting, he replied. Ahhh, lighting is romantic: sconces, distinctive streetlamps, well-lit shop windows, spots on art and sculptures, cathedrals ablaze with light and the small flickering candle at our table. On the kind, sweet mannered people we encounter here, we both immediately agree. There’s no catcalling, foul language, roughshod street talk or skirmishes. Everyone is immensely polite, friendly, helpful and gracious. At breakfast we receive a United Nations ‘Good Morning’ from everyone who walks in – in the native languages of neighboring countries – French, Italian, Deutsche and German. It rubs off. Just like the Libran golden rule, if you want to receive something, give it, the welcome feeling we receive is mirrored right back at ‘ya. We smile warmly, “Good Morning,” “Guttentag”.

Yes, here in Vienna we encounter something distinctly different from our Aries San Francisco home city of impatient drivers and too-hurried-to-bother with-one-another-vibe. Here we are treated as equals, as honored guests. In this Libra city, I see a peaceful, easygoing attitude on the face of Vienna. The energy is amazingly peaceful and calm amidst normal big city people in transit hubbub. As a woman, I feel completely safe walking the streets alone. When I stop to consult my map I’m consistently asked where I’m trying to go. Just like a Libra friend, the MO of the city is accommodating, overly concerned for my well-being. They seem to know what I need or they spend a good deal of energy to find out what that might be. That’s what makes Libra so wonderful to have around. And why marriage itself, over which Libra presides, only really works if you’re regarded as your partner’s equal in all ways – and slightly better than in most (Librans love to put you on a pedestal). Romance is inevitable in a Libran partnership… and in this Libran city.