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.

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