Mexico in 2014-15: Puerto Escondido, Vallarta, Gaudelajara

MEXICO IN 2014/2015

Dec 26-27

The landing in Cuidad de Mexico is harsh, having red-eyed it to Toronto from Edmonton, spent a worried hour in the departure lounge, where they boasted individual tablets at each seat in the absurdly costly cafeteria, none of which connected effectively with the Net. Then onto the plane at 8:30 to another 5.5 hrs ride in a small seat, marking time with bad Hollywood until it lulled me into all too brief a sleep before landing.

Arriving in Mexico City, I was a little too exhausted for much excitement, and had to collect myself to get through customs (without any hassle-they ask you to hit a button, which randomly generates a red or green response—if you come up green, you can carry your luggage through without question). I had hoped for luck with a spontaneous flight on Viva Aerobus, but no luck. As Brian had promised, Mexicans do travel around Christmas. Screw it, say I to myself, I’ll take the bleeding bus to Puerto Escondido. After an absurdly expensive 16-minute taxi ride to the bus station (Grrrr- I don’t mind paying fairly, but I hate to be taken, as it were, for a ride!), I arrive at the station and book a ticket to Oaxaca (a five and a half hour bus ride for which I pay less than twice what I paid the cabbie). I can’t say I’m looking forward to it much.

Sitting in the bus station, I realize how nice is the huge dome that covers it, and I sit sipping good coffee and listening to the soft murmur of gentle conversation of women to my left as I not wholeheartedly study my cardinal numbers in Spanish. Uno, dos, tre, quarto…

Tonight I will happily spend money on a decent hotel room in Oaxaca, and continue my trip to P.E. tomorrow, I think (in vain, as later events show).

When you get a chance to slow down for a few moments and observe, you realize how Mexicans are such family-oriented people. Men carry babies, mothers cuddle toddlers, kids run about. There are very sweet-natured folks around me, and I find myself relaxing, for the hundredth time in the past several months, reordering my mind and seeing not foreigners, but people, social animals without ill motive or malice. We are trained to distrust strangers, to have that automatic reaction when we think about Mexico City—it’s dirty!– it’s full of thieves!—its air unbreatheable!   None of this is true. Mexico City is full of very human beings carrying on with their lives and loving their children. If economic pressures are higher than Canadians are used to, this truly gives rise to some kinds of crime, but one thing is certain: I’m safer in this bus station than I would be on Whyte Ave on Friday night amongst the drunks.

To my relaxed eye, the people here in the bus station, subject to the waiting game that is holiday travel, seem sociable, calmer than the burghers of Edmonton, who, rushed in traffic in the cold, dissipate their energy in combative frustration.

The bus ride to Oaxaca is an uneventful six hours’ slog on a series of big toll highways clogged with traffic, the bus driver doing his best to stay on schedule by driving like he was in a rally. We arrive merely half an hour late, at 12:30 in the morning. My plan to splurge on a hotel room is dashed by the utter unavailability of a room within walking distance of the station. So I buy more coffee and a snack and wait for (as I thought) the 9:30 a.m. bus to Puerto Escondido. Finally, at four-thirty, stiff from trying to sleep on the steel chairs, I step up to the ticket counter, and the agent informs me that the bus does not leave until nuene-trente MANANA. I sag. Twenty nine more hours on the road?? As though the idea had just occurred to him, he suggests I might want to take a taxi to another terminal ten minutes away, and get the five a.m. bus to P. Escondido from there.

I grab a cab and arrive at the dirt yard that is the small bus company’s compound. I climb aboard the 12-passenger van that I’m sharing with other bleary-eyed passengers, and the van labours up into the hills for the 5-hour ride over steep winding roads to Puerto Escondido.

The ride is remarkable for its visceral, ear-popping, dizzying climbs, drops, and turns. I feel the twinges of car-sickness for the first time since I can remember. It’s also remarkable for its amazing views, by feats of daring and competent driving by the stoic at the wheel, and for the sociology of traffic in the hill country. Three children walk line abreast up on side of the road, while behind them accumulates a line of vehicles; an incongruous torch-bearer runs ahead of another line of traffic; an ambling horseman on a boney pony meanders down the side of the narrow road, tolerant of trucks, cars, and busses that career past.

When we stop for a break, the driver pulls off the road, barely managing not to obstruct it.   We descend into a small yard in front of a low-ceiling-ed compound with tables and chairs and a taco stove, and where the use of toilets (seatless, paperless, but nonetheless welcome) adds 3 pesos to the price of your drink and biscuits, or freshly-fried tortillas.

Then another 2 hours of squirreling through the mountains, and the very welcome descent into the coastal plain and the port. It takes me a visit to the local internet café to locate Brian and we are eventually united as he directs the taxi I had taken to our rendezvous into his neighbourhood, and to his house in the Southern suburb of Puerto Escondido called Los Tamarindos.

Brian has done a superb job with his Mexican getaway—the adobe-orange so common to the Mexican palate, virtually unknown in Canada, is the primary exterior colour. The house is capped by an attractive palapa (a leaf-roofed canopy). It has 3 upstairs bedrooms and an open kitchen-dining-relaxing area on the main floor. It also features a covered patio off the kitchen, glory to the daytime writer. The yard features a cool pool that seems to retain its refreshing 22 degrees even on a hot day.

Brian has, of course, already made many useful contacts in the community with tradespeople, restaurateurs, writers, etc. His talent for contacting interesting people continues to impress me. What equally impresses me is his domestic capability. He’s proud of his house, and attends to its needs, keeping a clean and ordered household while spending many disciplined hours writing every day. It should surprise no one that Brian Paisley (PhD Hon, O.C.) carries on a competent, sociable life in Puerto Escondido; it might surprise those who know him to watch his patient garden care.

Puerto Escondido is, considered as a Mexican town, a comfortable backwater that attracts the surfing crowd, and is tilted towards the international youth movement.

The mercado is huge, mostly covered, full of good food, clothing, household stuff. There are many useful shops on the street, selling musical instruments, tacos, meat, laundry services, pharmacy, hardware, car parts, and the kind of dollar-store goods that none of us can now do without. There are two supermarkets that sell everything from juice to motorcycles. Transportation is by communal trucks where you pay siente (7) pesos por una lift up and down the main drags. I describe this truck transport somewhat later.

The ocean is five minutes’ walk from Brian’s door, although the classic white sand beach is not for the sun-shy or for those who don’t like swimming in constant surf (I prefer shade, and rock-bottom swimming where you have a chance to see some living things). Nevertheless, it is a joy to be able to walk into the Pacific surf, or simply to sit contemplating the ocean.

It is New Year’s Eve. Tonight we will go along to the Split Cocoanut, a beachfront eatery where they have live music. Before that, though, another friend from Ottawa, an old Escondido hand who owns a beautiful restaurant, has extended an open invitation to watch the Canadian Junior Hockey team take on the American boys. I’ll be there.

And then…


Jan 4th

I sit in Osa Mariposa, the hippie hostel/bar/gathering place near Brian’s place, enjoying my first cup of coffee of the day, the 30-degree heat relieved by a fresh breeze whose effect on the ocean waves I intend to check later.

Last night Brian came to meet me at the Split Cocoanut, site of a supposed jam, but in fact a repetition of the New Years gig played by “Southern Fried,” the group fronted by a guy who thinks so much of himself that the audience watching him are not so much played for as played AT. He sits with his eyes closed, strumming and singing not incompetently, but in a remarkably consistent slow and unenergized dynamic.

I reflect that this might by what might happen to any ex-pat American whose talent is enough to play here, while not big enough to get a gig in his Southern Cal home. His one concession to higher tempo is a version of a Jethro Tull classic pronounced not with Ian Anderson’s nasal, gun-them-down precision, but as

Inna shofvelling ma-ness, locamodif bref/Runs the all-time loser, haa-long to ‘is def

He feels the siren howling, nmnnn breakin’ at his brow’/ But somebody stow the anvil, anna train it wone slodow, no it wont slodow…

It doesn’t matter that I’m not writing actual words—no more was he singing them.

The contrast with the jams I’ve played in Edmonton is extreme. It puts into steep relief the competency of what Mike Chenowith does at the Gaspump every Saturday. Mike’s definition of a jam is inclusive: every musician who shows up plays. Mike orchestrates with great care who plays with whom, putting musicians together who can support each other on stage.. The result is set after set of music the least of which is more dynamic than what the lads created last night on the beach.

Last night’s version of “Helpless,” a song I am simply tired of hearing, was dedicated to “all my Canadian friends.”   As Canuck nostalgia, I’d sooner listen to tires spinning in the snow, or a ski-doo refusing to start, than another de-energized rendition of Young’s plaint, played slower than Neil played it last time he’d had too much [fill in the blank] and failed to plug in the autotune on the vocal track.

Frustrated? A little. One senses a pothole in Mexican beach living: the self-satisfied, self-sufficiency of the ex-pat, drinking quarto cervasas a night, speaking eight words of Spanish, and trading shitty weather and Canuck work ethic for inexpensive pesos and days that bleed into one after another, relieved by booze and shallow beach friendships.

I know as I sit here that I have to keep moving, in this social and meteorological climate, or relax into turpitude.

Jan 6. Brian and I took the “collectivo” into town this morning to shop. The C is a small pickup whose box is covered by a blue tarp stretched covered-wagon-wise. Six to eight people can sit on the benches, up to three can hang off the back, standing on the bumper. Two to six passengers can sit in the cab, depending on its configuration.   At seven pesos per ride per passenger, averaging eight customers per run up and down the highway and into town, up to the Mercado and back (a twenty-minute run, more or less) I imagine that the drivers must gross some 240 pesos an hour. This seems like a good gig, even if expenses in gas, oil, tires, fees, repairs, and whatnot eat up half of the amount. A decent living by the standards of the town.

It’s hard not to be fascinated as one walks the streets. There is a particularly Mexican way of going about one’s business: purposeful, slow, polite to one’s known neighbours. This latter category does not include me, by the way. Contact with the strange gringos makes people shy and ashamed a bit, it seems, since no one here wishes to be taken for a servile underling, No one has any illusions about the economic disparity between Mexicans and their Northern neighbours. The cool reception is not resentment, I think: it is pride.

Young Mexicans generally have a more outgoing, upbeat attitude: they are more at home in the internationalized, internet-fuelled culture that us Northerners represent. They are more optimistic that their future does not include that economic disparity that has plagued generations of latinos.

There are still beggars on the street of Escondido, I’m sad to report. The aged and the infirm, have no other option than to sit and quietly ask for money. This is not ubiquitous. By way of comparison, I believe I would be much more frequently panhandled on Davie Street (Vancouver) than I was today. The notion that Mexico is a place where one is constantly accosted is not just nor is it up to date, at least not in this town. In fact, the aggressive approach of the drug-driven street people of Edmonton or Vancouver is much more obnoxious than any encounter I had this morning.

At the market, one finds stall after stall of neatly-presented vegetables: eggplant, zucchini, potatoes, garlic, onion, leeks, broccoli, cabbage, herbs, and fruits of many kinds, predominantly citrus and bananas. Mango (sadly) is not in season, although papaya is, and, of course, cocoanut.

The sidewalks are steep, irregular, and flawed, so that one must constantly keep an eye on one’s footing, or else step unexpectedly down, or turn one’s ankle, as I did this morning.

Nevertheless, I am gradually finding my way in the climate, getting used to the idea that you have to move about early in the morning, slow down at midday, and begin to be more active in the evening.   There is a reason why Mexicans have been so often characterized as slow-moving: you simply do not, and cannot move quickly under this powerful sun. No one who has ever watched a Mexican work would make the accusation of laziness. Canadians do move faster in general, but our climate doesn’t punish us for moving fast; it kills us UNLESS we move.

The pleasantest nights so far have been those when Brian and I have carried a couple of lawn chairs down to the beach under a full moon, and sat drinking red wine and talking about life and art on a brilliantly lit (on the blue end of the spectrum) beach unoccupied by any but ourselves. The waves whoosh in, the breeze blows fresh from five thousand miles of Pacific Ocean.

Jan 9

This morning I took a turn down to The Point (La Punta) to take snaps of the charming structure of the Lychee Restaurant where Brian and I dined two nights ago. Perhaps the most charming building I’ve ever dined in, the Lychee’s gently curving cocoanut-frond ceiling is as wonderfully relaxing to sit under as the sand under ones feet is balm to the toes. I would happily dine in such a place 150 nights a year. After that, the kilometer back, and a swim. I came into town to pick up my laundry and drop Brian’s off, and as I left the store a man called out to me from across the street My wallet ha fallen onto the sidewalk as I fished for money, and he stopped me before I had walked 10 paces. By doing so he saved me a world of grief over a missing wallet: saved by the kindness of strangers…

I feel like I’m on the verge of something unique and really fun with the sci-fi piece I’m writing for Jon. Every time I sit and concentrate on writing, another scene comes up and I’m grinning as I write…I can feel the plot rounding nicely towards a satisfying conclusion with very little effort on my part (a rare experience for me: mythos is always my weakest suit).

It’s as though 55 years of Saturday matinees, film noir, space movies, and westerns are simply flowing out of my pen. I recorded the first 20 pages last night, and –poor conditions and the barking frenzy of neighbourhood dogs notwithstanding– I could tell this was going to be a nice road to travel for an actor.

We watched the new film about Enigma last night (The Imitation Game) with Cumberbatch in the lead role of Alan Turing. Although some history was sacrificed to the main narrative, which was, not unexpectedly focused on the struggle of a gay genius, one has to be thankful that “gross indecency” is no longer a charge laid against homosexual practice. At least not in any country I’d live in.

I had hoped that the narrative would cover more detail about Bletchley, and about the processes of decryption, but who cares about history nowadays? I’m still driven a bit nuts when a British film in 2014 still refers to the life-giving flow of goods during that Battle of the Atlantic as coming “from America.” Although I know that for Brits, there’s a linguistic slide where Canada an the USA are conflated as “America,” I would surely love to hear a British film say, “we were damn fortunate to get so much food and so much materiel from CANADA, and acknowledge that it was not Americans, but CANADIANS who, in taking increasing responsibility for convoy protection, were solely responsible for shepherding ships across the Western Atlantic by the end of the war.

But the fate of a Canadian is always to be taken for granted. Sometimes this is not a bad thing. Who thinks of Canadians in Afghanistan? Fortunately, not too many Muslim extremists, so far.The news from Paris is more than depressing, it makes me very angry indeed. The avowed purpose of certain terrorists is to drag us into an ongoing conflict with Islam. Westerners who give it any thought at all must see that it is precisely those institutions which guarantee individual freedom, those institutions that represent everything progressive and liberal that are the ones that must be protected. That a couple of guys with AK 47s could conceivably silence Western intellectuals is offensive in the extreme; it drives one towards the armed camp of those who actually want what the jihadists want. I am conflicted in my feelings; while I know that there is no point in some revenger’s tragedy of an asymmetrical war, I want those God damned murderers to pay, not only for the crime of murder, but for the crime of assaulting those very freedoms which they do not want because they do not know how to value them, the second crime at least as serious as the first.

Jan 16-Vallarta to Gurdalajara

In some back part of my mind, I have been searching for this city for years. Guadalajara is the second-largest city in Mexico, of some 8 million, and I have spent a paltry 24 hours here, most of them in a burnt-out physical state brought on by too much booze on Wednesday night while visiting Tom and Lynn as a fellow guest in the luxurious gated community Puente Nita, north of Puerto Vallarta. Our visit there was delightful, although there was a quite extraordinarily bizarre sense that I was visiting not just a resort in Mexico, but a completely different kind of culture, one inhabited by people I knew existed but whose existence I could barely accept, much less understand.

Puente Mita is completely owned by one corporate entity. Lynn’s brother told me that the whole development, which occupies the entire cape, or point, is about 1500 acres, and this was easily to be believed. Upon entering the gate (where a security guard carefully checks one’s credentials), one drives up a refined country road, where the golf courses and indeed the signs of other habitation are hidden from the road until one comes to one of the “bays” where 6-storey condo buildings are situated within view of the sea.

I arrived late, the driver who had been sent explaining several times who I was and with whom I was staying (there was some confusion, as the condo was rented in the name of Bill’s girlfriend Karen Ritchie). It was only in the morning when I woke up on one of the two large beds in my ensuite bedroom whose toilet was appointed in the latest marble-finished style, and stumbled out to the main social area, a vast space generously opening onto a vast covered balcony overlooking the sea, that I got a real impression of how very like a movie, how very unlike anything in my experience, that this luxury was…

The thirty-six hours I spent there were a lovely visit with my friends, and Lynn’s brother generously drove us up the coast to the small village of Sayulita which has become the kind of tourist Mecca where people shuffle up and down the streets in search of the best meals and most perfect views of the sea, while the Mexicans shill hats, crafts, holiday experiences, and booze.

We perched at a seaside joint to try to order food (and failed, since the owners were not ready to start their day). The grossly overweight platoon of Americans who occupied the table next to us supplied that comic-opera vision of the U.S. tourist whom I have seen but rarely in my travels. Whining in complaint, they regretted that “this wasn’t the experience that we expected” and “Ah’m goin back to the awl-inclusive,” presumably with the intent of piling their plates very high with deep-fried chicken and pulled pork, and supporting their elephantine bulks.

If this seems cruel, it is only reportage of what we (Tom, Lynn, Bill and I) saw. When we were safely out of earshot, we looked at each other laughing. Could such stereotypes actually be real?

I spend my time in the pool, the ocean, or reading I Claudius by Robert Graves, while sucking back one of the excellent Margaritas that the staff of “the beach club” part of the resort gladly make for you for 30 pesos. When I trade a few pesos for this used book a few days ago at at the hostel near Brian’s place, he looked at me askance: “Why would you want to go back to that?” My answer is and remains that good prose is worth reading anytime and anywhere, and I remain ever-grateful to Graves for his stunning WW I memoir “Goodbye To All That,” which is required reading for anyone curious about either the First World War, or about the inner workings of combat fatigue.

In the luxury condo, we cooked and ate in the evening, and had a fun conversation which ended in late night carousal, Lynn and I facing off, as we do at regular intervals over our differing philosophies about child safety. (I have let us say a higher threshold for risk tolerance.) Lynn and I argue as naturally as breathing. If we were in perfect agreement about anything in the world, we’d no doubt avoid the subject in favour of something we could lock horns about. I only hope Lynn enjoys this as much as I do.

In the morning, battling my hangover, I waited for the promised arrival of the driver to take me to the bas station to travel to Guadelajara. As he didn’t show, Bill volunteered to drive, and Tom came along for the ride. We motored down the coastal highway, which is delightful until you come to the version of civilization called Vallarta, which is a Mexican town of very little charm indeed, and struggled to find the bus station. Having asked five different people for directions, and got four and a half different answers, I finally asked to be let off to find my way to the Terminus on my own. As it turned out, it was 20 yards from the place they dropped me.

The 4.5 hour ride to Guadalajara. was less delightful than it should have been, since I was still dehydrated and achy. Nevertheless, arriving in that city was a real pleasure. I had chosen to say at the Hotel Frances, a building some four hundred years old, in the very centre of the old town. Ancient colonial architecture is everywhere. The grey and white limestone was well used by the Spanish conquistadores, and the public space is open, and well used by the citizens. Long arcaded walks lead through streets where there are no autos. Musicians and street performers play in bars, on the street. The thousands of symphony musicians, university students, young artists, no less than the older people of the town, enjoy each others’ company in the cool evening air. Commerce is carried on on lots of levels, from the proprietors of small carts to the ubiquitous 7-11, and there is a sense of ownership and relaxation that I have felt in few cities anywhere. Wherever else I travel on this or any other Mexican sojourn, this is a city I want to spend time in. I felt myself wanting to introduce myself to someone and present my credentials, an impulse I rarely have.   I want to declare to someone, “I am an artist! Please let me into the inner life of this city.”   For someone who actually prefers to wander the planet anonymously, this is a rare feeling.

I am now on the bus to San Miguel de Allende, a city that I look forward to revisiting, having spent such a short time there a few years ago, and that in that awkward relationship-saving mode that often happens when couples travel together. Now I can truly explore SMA on my own, and stay open to the cultural experiences that I want to have. I’ll also shop for a guitar , since the only option that was even half viable at The Guitar Shop in Guad was a Squire Strat that I neither really wanted or wanted to pay for, the oddball proprietor of the store having asked $120 for a guitar I could pay considerably less for by searching Kijiji in Edmonton.

So I am luxury-bussing (by the low standards set by Greyhound Canada) through the high plateaus of central Mexico on an excellent highway as The Lego Movie unfurls its constant motion for the ADHD crowd. The landscape is not unlike parts of Southern Alberta foothills, absent the looming presence of the magnificent Rockies, the soil being rockier and redder than ours, and the climate very dry. Condors, eagles, and buzzards wheel above it, and small signs of human industry are everywhere. I must say that one doesn’t see cactus and palm trees anywhere in Alberta, nor various other signs that we are indeed in Mexico.

Roger B has hinted that Gerry’s in some discomfort in the hospital. I must phone tonight and find out what’s going on..

I have finished The Palladin (for some reason, I cling to the unnecessary extra “l”), and I’m really pleased with the results. It’s a silly piece of theatre, but it is so in a smart entertaining way, I hope, and I think it will give Jon a great platform from which to foray into the audience’s pleasure centres as he is so ably inclined to do. Hopefully, it’s a show with which he can make a good living for two years.

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