Saturday, March 22, 2008

Feliz Primavera

Kids in the Spring parade in San Miguel

Happy Spring!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Flight of the Iguana

Neighborhood crocodile in La Manzanilla
(photoshop was not used to create this image)

We are trying to get through Puerto Vallarta but the city is endless. Rattletrap old busses with broken plastic seats and sweat-smeared windows list their destinations in white paint down the front of broken windshields. Not street names or neighborhoods, but Wal-Mart. Costco. Sam’s Club. This bizarre disparity/ juxtaposition between transportation and destination are the epidemy of the new Mexico, caught between two words, chugging to catch up to the modern world in broken down busses and empty pockets. We rumble over semi paved roads, the driver popping the clutch at every stop and start from his plastic lawn chair bolted to the rusting floor. Dusty faded dingle balls bounce and jerk in rhythm with the potholes and topes, speed bumps. We hold on, passing KFC’s and OfficeMax and McDonald’s. Home Depot. Subway. Billboards in English with pictures of towering hotels and blonde couples smiling on a deserted beach. We never see the real beach, only streams of yellow taxis, sunburned tourists laden with shopping bags. Frayed palm trees line up along the road like tired old soldiers in a lost war, dwarfed by cell and radio towers. We are confused here among the traffic and buildings and Mexicans who seem to have lost their inherent kindness, cinched their hearts against the overwhelming encroachment of a new culture, teetering between the world of abundant capitalism and convenience and the uncelebrated loss of their neighborhoods. The only thing that feels like Mexico right now is the interior of this old bus- the driver joking with the ticket boy, cussing and laughing at every near miss. No manches, guey! Ay, cabron! It’s hard to imagine this town as the fishing village it once was until Liz Taylor in “Night of the Iguana” put it on the map and sent it spiraling into tourism and the excesses of the modern world. We careen across the cobblestone streets bordering slick concrete parking lots as if in a time machine from the past, barreling towards progress and a future that does not stop for anyone.
We pass the Mega.Soriano. Gigante. Liverpool. Mexico’s own versions of big box stores. Outside in the street an old man pushes a little paleta cart past the entrance to shining luxury condos. At a bus stop a young girl in her Catholic school uniform is wrapped in a hot embrace with her boyfriend, her plaid skirt hiking up her thigh. Everyone on the bus watches with mild interest, until we are jerked forward and onward, our destinations a distant dream in the midst of a journey that is longer than any of us can possibly imagine.

After following the long curve of highway south of Vallarta we travel towards La Manzanilla, a small fishing village where I used to live over 20 years ago. I am filled with memories and expectations, and bracing myself for the changes that must have occurred since my last visit. I lived in a little bungalow on the beach, owned by a wonderful Mexican family that adopted me as their resident gringa. Would they still be there? Would anyone remember me? Surely many had left or died, their children now grown with children of their own. We are let off on the crossroads to the town and walk the kilometer to get to the beach. I am already noticing the changes: huge houses on the hillsides, tour companies and real estate offices, cell tower, restaurants, gift shops. We wander down the dusty main street that runs parallel to the beach. Where breeze once flowed through the palapas to the street there is now a wall of large houses with iron gates. And then a palapa roofed terrace, where a woman is hanging laundry. I call her name and she squints at me, confused. Then her eyes grow wide and she remembers. All these years gone by and she remembers.

We are invited to Miguelito’s 4th birthday party, the age his mother was last time I was here. It’s being held at the ranch out in the country by Boca de Iguanas. Once a remote beach the property now butts up against a huge resort. There is cake, tamales, and birria from a freshly slaughtered goat. The men all gather around a vat of frying chicharon that Miguelito’s grandfather is stirring with a large wooden spoon. They pluck lemons from nearby trees to squeeze into tequila. The women and children are on the terrace, where a clown is performing and music is blaring and colorful piƱatas hang from the rafters. There are so many children. That each one of them gets a birthday party like this one every year is mind-boggling. Mothers must spend most of their time preparing for them and cleaning up after them. It is so amazing to be here and among this family again. Some have died, and many more have been born. Some have moved to the states and are working in factories or cafeterias, but most of them have stayed on, knowing that they have a special piece of paradise, here among the palm trees and each other. I am so glad to be a part of it all.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Journey to the Edge

We take a night long bus ride from San Miguel to the coast to spend a few weeks at the beach and the noise never ends. Television screens hanging above the seats blast out B rated movies dubbed in Spanish to a busload of sleeping Mexicans, while I suffer every scream and bullet through my useless earplugs. The baby in the seat behind us cries all night long amidst the suck and whistle of a dozen people snoring, the loudest by far being the woman sitting across the aisle from me. A woman so large she seems to be poured into her seat like dark bread dough, overflowing the arm rests, her brightly flowered belly rising and falling with the labored rhythm of her breathing. We wind our way down from the high desert and over another mountain range, past the cities of Celaya and Guadalajara and a hundred small villages in between, the dark shadows of trees and cactus passing in a shady blur outside the window. At one point we feel a rush of intense heat and watch out the window as a fire rages at the side of the road just a few feet away from the passing traffic. I see the dark silhouette of an agave raising its spiny thorns in a futile gesture against a wall of bright orange fire poised to devour it, and I think: “El llano en llamas,” straight out of a Juan Rulfo novel. The Valley in Flames.
Somehow I manage to sleep for a few hours and wake up to the breaking dawn to see the layers of distant hills in shades of pink and lavender, and the dark spindly shapes of palm trees rising up out of a tangled mass of jungle. I breathe in the moist green air of the coast and taste a hint of salt. My ears are thrumming from the long descent and my mind is a tired blur of exhaustion and relief. Finally we arrive in the dusty coastal town of Buscerias, where we disembark and stagger down a dirt road towards the beach.
The sea at last. There it is, silvery blue and green, twinkling in the haze of the early morning light, gentle and sweet. A few plastic bottles and beer cans bob gently on the surface. We plop down on a concrete bench and buy hot creamy atoles from a boy pushing a little cart, and we sit there and wait for our souls to catch up to our tired bodies, listening to the soft sounds of water on sand.
A man is standing several feet away, looking out to sea. He is drinking from a can of orange Fanta. He turns toward us and I nod in greeting, then see that his eyes are brimming with tears. He comes over and sits down on the bench and asks us where we are from, and tells us that he is also a stranger here. He lives in another beach town a few hours away, and is here in Buscerias staying with his brother. One week ago today, he says, he found his wife in bed with his best friend. Now he has no idea where to go, or what to do. He takes a long drink from the can, shakes his head, and sighs. We sit in silence for awhile, the three of us. What can we say to this man with a freshly broken heart, crying into his soda? Which of us has not been betrayed by someone we love? I feel my heart expand with his sorrow, emptying into the endless sea.

From Buscerias we hop on an old second-class bus to Chacala, a small beach town about a half an hour up the coast and our final destination. I share a seat next to a beautiful young woman holding a sleeping baby wrapped in a fuzzy blue blanket. It takes a moment for me to realize that the child is deformed, a tiny face nested into an enormous head. The woman is glowing and begins chattering away about the boy, who she absolutely adores. She tells me that he was born in a coma with encephalitis and not expected to live more than a few hours. But now look at him, living proof of the existence of God and His miracles. For this reason she has named him Angel of Jesus. After a while the baby opens his eyes and they swim about like lost fish for a few seconds before they focus on his mother’s face and rest there, his little mouth forming into a tiny alien grin, revealing two miniature teeth. It is a smile as pure and full of love as I have ever seen.
We arrive in the town of Varas and I say goodbye to Angel of Jesus as we are directed towards a rusty blue van, a collectivo that will take us to Chacala. We squeeze our way into the crowded van as the driver pulls on a frayed string to close the sliding back door. He slips a CD into the player and away we go, bouncing to the scratchy wailing of ranchera music that skips and switches songs at each pothole and bump in the road in a maddening schizophrenic montage of sound. No one seems to notice but me.
My husband is seated up front next to the driver and I can see the back of his head, his hair sticking out in all directions and his shirt rumpled from the long sleepless night. I feel a pang of tenderness for him, and wonder if he is cursing me at this very moment for talking him into coming on this trip, pulling him out of his comfort zone and into this world of unpredictable ups and downs. As the music jerks this way and that, the old van rattling and squeaking, everyone is hanging on to their seats or to each other, I suddenly begin to laugh out loud. I can’t stop. I’m delirious with exhaustion and the wonder of being alive in this world where it is impossible to know what will happen next. Where life splays itself open and shares itself with me, in all of its pain and beauty. Tears are streaming down my face. I am a madwoman, laughing and crying at once. Fortunately no one can hear me among the myriad of noises that surround us.
Chacala is a lovely white crescent of beach lined with palm trees, a few RV’s, and several small seafood restaurants with palm leaf palapa roofs and little stands selling shell jewelry and plastic beach toys. Enormous iguanas sun themselves on nearby rocks and pelicans perch on the edges of fishing boats that are tied to a small dock at the far end of the bay. We collapse onto plastic chairs at a table right on the beach and order huevos rancheros and coffee, but there is only instant Nescafe, so we order coke and beer instead. We take off our shoes and dig our toes into the cool sand and feel the ocean breeze on our faces as we scoop up eggs and beans and salsa with thick home made tortillas and watch the vast sparkly ocean as it gently kisses the grateful shore.