The thrills and perils of raw-dogging reality

Untethered from drugs, apps, and shoes, Christina Catherine Martinez charts a journey of physical and psychological undress to Mexico’s only nude beach

I have to go. I have a taxi on the way. I should have been out hours ago, but I’m still trying to Tetris the too many pairs of shoes I packed into my carry-on. I’m in Mexico City. I told Chris I’d only be at his pied-à-terre two weeks before heading to Oaxaca, but I ran out of money and hoped to lie low here. He called, and now I have to scoot quickly to make room for a collector who needs a crash pad for art week. The fucking thing isn’t zipping. My flight home is not for another seven days. I can’t afford to change it, and even if I did get back to Los Angeles early, there’s a subletter in my own apartment. I didn’t even wear the heels. I try to come to Mexico at least one month out of the year to write—or, as I like to say, “get gassed up in the motherland.” I balance the generosity of my friends abroad against finding interim occupants for my own place, which usually covers the cost of my flights. Somehow, nothing is fitting this time. I crouch on the carry-on and zip it around me, like it’s an island. What is this capsule wardrobe that I hear so much about? Who are these witches of spatial economy going on month-long trips with only two pairs of shoes or less?

I deduce which of my friends back home might have excess domestic real estate and live close enough to my own neighborhood. The resulting Venn diagram contains only one person: my ex with the guest bedroom. “I would love for you to stay here,” he says, “but, um… it’s kind of a mess.” He sends money instead to stay in Mexico until my subletter clears out. I came here ostensibly to clear my head, but I overpacked. Not just shoes. I can’t seem to get clear—I’m banging the bursting suitcase down three floors of concrete steps—on why. Yes! The overpacked case stands for the mind, the myriad mental calculations that make these excursions possible in the first place. This makes sense. A taxi passes. I often mistake neatness for meaning.

My dad’s single salary selling shoes at Nordstrom was spread thin across his family of five. I learned later in life that, once we were fed and shod, there was sometimes not enough money left for rent. Sunday nights, I watched him ritually shine and buff his shoes for the week, oil-black wingtips and oxblood loafers that seemed heavy and important. I absorbed—if only through the vague osmosis by which most inscrutable family values are passed on—some idea that quality footwear could act as a tether to dignity. Never mind the checks are bouncing and the kids are sticky. I have a mild but consistent fear of arriving at the function in the wrong kind of tethers.

I look at my phone. This neighborhood is becoming more and more familiar, but still, each time I leave the apartment, my phone is in my hand. If I just looked around more, maybe the topography would set in my bones faster. I have a ghost of a mental map, the kind I made as a child—marking not street names but stores and landmarks. I know that when I pass through Mercado Medellín, it’s only two more blocks until I turn right, or if I pass the Big Butt David from the butt side, that means I’m heading away from the apartment. (Big Butt David is a bronze replica of Michaelangelo’s David that belongs to Plaza Río de Janeiro. One day, I will force myself to memorize his proper name.) No matter. The landmarks never set, because each time I leave the apartment, my body, more than anything else, is tuned to the blue line of my phone’s GPS, which hasn’t left my hand all month, even just to walk to the coffee shop a few blocks away. I’m told it’s not safe for a woman to walk around Mexico with no phone, even though every year, there are more coffee shops within walking distance of Chris’s apartment, filled with more and more harmless-looking denizens of the laptop-pecking class. At home, I sometimes walk for hours with only a house key in my pocket. I ran into a friend on the street during one of these walks. He seemed impressed that I was out in public without a phone. He asked if I wanted to grab a drink. I shrugged and said I didn’t have my wallet or ID on me, either. “Wow,” he said, “you’re really just out here raw-dogging reality?”

“I have a ghost of a mental map, the kind I made as a child—marking not street names but stores and landmarks.”

It’s not an original phrase. I’ve seen some variation of it tweeted many times; I’ve heard it in punchlines from any number of otherwise-creative comedians. It’s used to describe any quotidian action that does not involve the genteel psychological bulwarks we have come to wield against experience: going outside without a phone, going on dates without an app, going through life in general without prescription drugs, a therapist, a tarot deck, and a weighted blanket. The implication is that if life is going to fuck us, we should at least be wearing a condom. The idea is that life, in its most direct forms, might be seductive, might feel good in the moment, might understandably be stumbled upon when one’s judgment is impaired—but this is ill-advised, and definitely requires a barrier between oneself and it.

The car is here. My busted Spanish bubbles forth, offering greetings and politesse. The driver, as usual, is surprised by the weight of my bag. He asks where I want to go. I would like to be emptied for once.

I was at a luncheon in Mexico City the week before, full of women older than me, but with such skilled estheticians in their employ, they wore very little makeup, or none. Raw-dogging reality, in a way. I remember asking, for no reason at all, what beaches they’d recommend. I remember the name Zipolite came up, but maybe as a negative example, I can’t remember. It’s a nude beach, they said, full of hippies. The taxi is idling. I need to do more math. With the money I have left, I can either get a hotel nearby in Roma and rack up room service while I wait to go home, or I can fly to Huatulco and try to get a car to Colonia Roca Blanca and stay in a hut steps from the frothy mouth of Mexico’s first and only legal public nude beach. I have further to go before I am empty. I’m haunted by the women’s shoes at the lunch—confident, minimalist sandals, triumphs of design. I’m nearly two thousand miles from home and I haven’t gone anywhere. Not where it counts. I’d thought ballet flats would make good “everyday” shoes, but I was wrong, and I have to wear them with thick, scrunchy drugstore socks to make them the least bit walkable. This is a look, when done with more deliberation, known as “balletcore.” Why do I know this?

“Take me to the airport, please.” I book the flight on the way. 

Bahías de Huatulco International Airport is a single-runway airport with thatched-roof terminals. The frisson of its remoteness is duly contained by a sheath of commerce. The airport is essentially a hut, but also home to The Sunglass Hut. At least the air is hot and thick. I shed several layers on the tarmac. My hotel has arranged for a shuttle to pick me up from the airport. The shuttle turns out to be the owner of the hotel, Cate, an American, in a pickup truck with Sparkletts jugs bouncing around the cargo bed and her children’s snack wrappers tucked into the creases between the seats. She throws my taught carry-on in the back, alongside the jugs. “Oh god, I didn’t know what to expect from you,” she says. “Your message said you were covered in paint.” She’s referring to the WhatsApp text I had sent in broken Spanish, trying to describe my cardinal identifying sartorial feature as a “paint-splattered jumpsuit.”

“I thought maybe you were slow,” she says. 

It’s sunset, when the gas stations start running out of gas, and the ATMs similarly start running out of cash until morning. Our 90-minute route is nearly doubled as we wait in line at two different stations, only to be shooed away. A light panic trickles in. Cate doesn’t have enough gas to get us to the hotel. A real problem, setting itself in my bones like a landmark. Are we fucked? She finds a Pemex in Mazunte that still has gas, and fills the truck with more than enough fuel to escort me to three different ATMs—one at the gas station, one at a hospital, and finally, a grocery store with efectivo to spare—before getting back on the main road to Playa Zipolite. Cate wants 800 pesos cash for the ride and shows no signs of relenting in getting it, as she relates her struggle to find a good private school for her kids in Oaxaca and to divide the asset of the hotel with her soon-to-be ex-husband. She’s well into building a certain picture of his character before remembering, for the first time in hours, that I am about to be a patron of his establishment.

“He’s a fun guy, though. You’ll like him.”

“Displaying the act of undress by wearing my bathing suit and then taking it off near the water, somehow seems more appropriate. There is a lot of ink in art history about the difference between naked and nude. I haven’t parsed it.”

By the time Cate pulls up behind the stacked cluster of plywood huts, everything is black. The shoreline is meters away, but the waves sound like they’re coming in from under a sleeping bag. Cate takes my carry-on out of the truck bed and gets back in the cab without a sliver of sentiment. I start to say something, but she cuts me off. “I don’t live here anymore.” She tells me to find her husband, “and make sure he carries your bag up to the hut. I gave you the good one, at the top.”

I can’t see. In the dark and the silence, the hotel feels like another David. I walk through a tall plywood gate into a small courtyard filled with laundry. I open the door and, in a blast of fluorescent light, two men with no shirts are standing at the kitchen counter watching television. One of them turns around. One of them is Cate’s husband. Maybe he has had a talking-to. Everything is slow and no one says a word, but he lumbers over to my bags and leads me up two flights of treehouse steps to a room with a thatched roof and no light. I place the tiny latch hook into the loop, locking the door, perhaps guiltily, before putting my arms out into the dark and feeling for the papery top sheet of the bed. I’m almost there. 

It’s morning, and I’m ready. The beach has come to life like the tiny tourist spot it is. I don’t know if it is appropriate to leave my hut nude and head straight for the water, as if architecture, however rudimentary, renders a naked body less innocent. Displaying the act of undress by wearing my bathing suit and then taking it off near the water, somehow seems more appropriate. There is a lot of ink in art history about the difference between naked and nude. I haven’t parsed it. I do know that no one calls a painting “a naked.” My phone doesn’t work. My footwear is scattered all over the floor, none of it apropos to the function where I now find myself. The cooked sand immediately blisters my naked feet, so I go back inside to throw on the flats. Maybe a hat. And a notebook. I have defaulted to the American mode of meeting nature with a burden of props in tow. There is a strong rip current, and the tide can advance yards inland from one wave to the next. I walk to the edge of the water. In one swift motion, the ocean takes my book, my bikini, my ballet flats, and then me. My tethers are gone. I am naked, on all fours, at the shoreline, choking and vomiting salt water until my insides are hollow. Raw-dogged at last.