When we came home we faced almost a 100F degree temperature differential. It was near 90F when we left Ixtapa. Five hours later it was -4F in our back yard.
It was about the same differential going down there. In between we escaped five weeks of our nominally coldest chunk of winter. There’s a lot to do in the Twin Cities all year but from around New Year to around April Fools Day most leisure time is spent indoors. Somewhere not cold. Somewhere out of the piercing windchill. Someplace where one false step on icy pavement and maybe you get your hip replaced anyway when it was just perfectly fine before you slipped and fell. To escape the cold we surrender to a place warm all the time, where the ocean crashes the sandy beach about once every twelve seconds, palm trees sway — salsa sway — in the fresh sea breezes, and the sunshine pours down upon people going in and out of the shade. In and around the sea. Subtropical Mexico.
We take up residency at the Krystal hotel. We get a room for five weeks or so, and with it comes access to the hotel facilities, swimming pool, towels, shows on the stage in the big back yard, all the bars, food stands and restaurants within the hotel campus and all amenities available to guests of the hotel, such as daily room cleaning. Our loyalty to the Krystal goes both ways, as the hotel team has as long as we remember welcomes us with the most gracious hospitality we have experienced anywhere. It’s not that we think we’re special, they just treat us special in a way that projects how they treat all their guests. The service standards are very high at the Krystal. We do not take an all-inclusive package, even if we partake of one meal a day at one of the hotel cafes. We pay as we go and don’t feel compelled to overeat or drink to get our moneysworth. The food is good, the buffet sometimes very good, but all over Ixtapa and Zihua there are as many good places to eat as you care to frequent your whole stay, a pair of cities in a region with apparently a lot of quality kitchens.
The Krystal is directly on the beach and situated in the middle of the middle of Playa Palmar, a three mile scoop of sand on the bay of Ixtapa between rocky coasts along the blue Pacific where the hotels and condos align the continuous beach from end to end and people are out playing in the surf. Walk from the Krystal left or right, either way it’s a mile and a half to the end where the sand stops at a wall of jagged volcanic rock smoothed by the sea and you can walk no further without climbing gear. So you kick the wall and walk back.
Along the tide line the sand of the beach borders squishy and compact. The ocean can get you by the ankles coming and going and you can play a fancy game. On this beach the tide never stands still, it rolls in and out from steady pulsing surf. Most days the warning flags are red. Sometimes black. Never green. Some days are good for boogie boarding. Every day is good for watching the breakers.
West from the hotel set back from the widest stretch of beach are the massage huts. There are seven huts, each staffed by seven masajistas and configured to hold seven massage tables. The huts are a cross between a FEMA trailer and a pre-fabricated one car garage, built of sturdy lumber on solid pilings with airy windows and corrugated tile roofs.
You enter up some stairs after the masajista washes your feet at the bottom stair. Shoes are left outside in the shade. The foot ablusions take on a holy ritual character though it’s done to keep sand out of the hut. The masajista scoops water from a five gallon bucket with a bowl like a doggie dish and pours the water over your feet. And again. She motions up the steps and inside. She indicates which massage table and gestures you to take your place. You remove your hat, shirt, glasses and put them in a Rubbermaid dish bucket, which gets placed on a shelf under your table. You lie face down with your face in a triangle padded by cloths. Arms at your sides. She props your ankles with a cushion. She might towel you off to get started, to remove sand and sweat. Then she’ll probe certain places on your back. Your neck. You hear the application of lotion to a pair of hands and then it begins. Sheer ecstasy. Bliss.
This is the part why some Googlers search my blog looking for sexual prostitution, and I’ll tell you again there’s none to be had from the massage huts on Playa Palmar. They got some guys with muscle keeping an eye on the premises and carrying water in five gallon buckets from the sea to wet a cool path in the sand up to the massage hut doors or to use for washing feet. And spending eight to ten hours massaging bodies all day, six days a week, the masajistas themselves are in physical shape to defend themselves against anybody who might get out of line, much less team up to stop somebody from getting aggressive. It’s not a totally private place, there could be six other masajes going on around you and the reason it seems private is half the time everybody’s face down on the tables and when on your back they cover your eyes.
You get a massage. Almost all over. For an hour — a full hour. Methodically. Professionally. That’s all the happy ending you get — perhaps a sad ending really, you’re disappointed when it’s over. The whole time you can meditate and listen to the sea. There is a code of silence in the hut. Sometimes masajistas might whisper a few words among themselves, in Spanish of course. Sometimes a client might ask a question, or cough. Mostly it’s the ocean and whatever sounds your mind makes while your back and limbs get sculpted by hands who sincerely care. That’s all.
They charge $300 Mx pesos an hour. That comes out about $17.15 USD. Tipping as always is optional but I recommend extravagant generosity. Nowhere more than the massage casitas at Playa Palmar does the faraway stranger engage the graces of the host culture. Man or woman, nowhere else do you surrender yourself and entrust your well being blindly to the hands of gracious hospitality in a land of serving tourists. Las masajistas possess skills of public health, and when tourists partake of their services they engage local talent in a straightforward trusting way extending more intimate than the waiters and cooks who serve the food and the attendants and camaristas who service the rooms at any hotel lodging along the sea at this particular place in Mexico.
We rent a room for about a month to go somewhere predictably sunny and very warm and escape extreme cold and icy slippery conditions for a slippery wet swimming pool deck. No kidding. Noplace is perfectly without risk.
We literally live the life of beach bums residing under a thatched palm palapa in the sand near the sea wall of the hotel. We live a decadent lifestyle of reclining and reading books and walking the beach, swimming in the ocean, dipping in the pool, and staring at the surf. People watching. Day after day. This differs radically from what I would be doing at home except for the reading and reclining. After sundown we go somewhere for dinner.
Simple. Sunrise, madrugada, comes about 7. Sunset when we first arrive is about 6:20 and it’s a quarter to seven by the time we come back, leaving us at home with not only a temperature deficit but a daylight setback as well. The comparisons between home and Mexico are so stark it’s fair to ask why we don’t stay much longer. I suppose we could afford it, financially, after all we have to live somewhere and they don’t put trailer hitches on hearses, as our friend Bob would say. No, we feel compelled to put up with a measurable share of the winter calendar in situ in Minneapolis as if to earn residency and bragging rights. We have family where we live. Grandchildren. We wish they might join us down in Ixtapa, at least for a week, but our kids have other tastes to spend a week’s vacation, and the elder grandkids have school, competitive gymnastics and whatever commitments youngsters shouldn’t break to cavort with grandparents in the tropics. Maybe I should be thankful to not bear responsibility for well being beyond Roxanne and me.
Our daughter Michel ultimately won’t allow her daughters to travel with us to Mexico for concern of human trafficking. Our son Vincent’s daughter is still virtually a baby, but there’s no chance he would seek such a hot place, he’s not comfortable in the tropics and thus the very reason Roxanne and I choose to be loyal to Ixtapa would be lost on him.
It’s about twenty years we’ve been coming to Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.
What began as a getaway to de-stress from our jobs and get a break from the cold weather is now an annual pilgrimage, almost an entitlement. We have no job stress to recover from. Ours is a charmed life. We’ve got no one of friend and family breaking our hearts (at the moment or for the foreseeable) or any worries, dangerous looming decisions or nightmares to overcome. We go to the beach at Ixtapa from mid-January to mid-February to escape a coldness that clinches the muscles and seizes the bones and numbs the brain. We supplant the mummy cold with tropical heat. Someday it might be proven that eliminating that one month of zombie coldness from our lives each year enabled us to live longer, healthier lives. As they say, not all the data is in.
Twenty years of observation doesn’t qualify me to make solemn judgments about Mexican culture or the tourist vacation economy, much less to profess relationships to migration and society. I qualify as an observer. I have seen change.
If insanity is manifest by doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result, than maybe a sign of sanity is doing the same thing expecting the same result. Every year we expect hot days and sunny skies. In twenty years it has rained three times. Two were washout, all day rains. Once, just this year, it rained in the evening and was gone by morning. If anything else this year it seemed hotter. I think the humidity was higher. We got used to it.
The changes are gradual, some profound. High rise condos, eleven or twelve stories tall, stake out the western stretch of Ixtapa’s beach skyline where used to be scrublands and coconut palms beyond the sand. It’s neatly manicured landscape now. The whole Playa Palmar is public beach, so there are public access points alongside some of the condo properties, which are new and solid with balconies facing the sea in the most urban of architecture. The other two thirds of the beachfront consists of the last remaining scrub land and open access next to the massage huts, next to a bar and cantina named Charlie’s that used to be a Carlos and Charlie’s night club, which is next to another bar and cantina called Tanta Vida that fronts the Dolfinium where you can swim with dolphins and watch them do tricks. Next are hotels, the Park Royal (formerly a Radisson) another ten story high rise, then the Tesoro, a low rise hotel next door to the Krystal, which is eleven stories. There are two more condos and five more medium to high rise hotels the remainder of the beach until you reach scrubland at a stretch of public access bordering a mangrove jungle swamp alongside a golf course where there is a causeway for public access, and then beachside development culminates at a sprawling hillside resort known as Pacifica.
One thing that has barely changed in twenty years is the aggressive street marketing campaign the Pacifica puts on to attract loyal guests. Everywhere in town you meet neatly dressed guys with ring binders who will pick you up at your hotel for a free breakfast and a spiel and tour of the resort. The charms of Pacifica are hard to resist. The condos are terraced little haciendas on the cliffs facing westward to the sea. The amenities are sumptuous and shady. It boasts a little cable car from the main facilities up over the alligator creek to the condos. The beach is at a quiet corner of the bay where the surf rolls in most gently. Roxanne and I walk down there to swim in the sea when it’s too rough at the Krystal. Maybe Roxanne and I are known for twenty years of saying no gracias to the guys with the ring binders, with all gracious due respect. For all intents and purposes it’s a time share thing a few notches above our budget.
We could spend even more for accommodations if we chose to rent condos near the marina at the other end of the bay, at the near empty beach beyond the massage huts. Closer within the mix, among the hotels between the Pacifica and the Krystal is the finest piece of architecture in the region, a wedding cake of arches, curves and iron, the high rise condos of the Bay View Grande. We would love to stay at Bay View Grande if we won the lottery or maybe our whole extended family chipped in. Even the condominiums called Amara next door to the Krystal are luxuriously priced, for good reason.
We stay at the Krystal for several reasons, location, hospitality and affordability chief among them. They seem to recognize our loyalty and we appreciate their recognition. We could live cheaper at accommodations in Zihuatanejo proper, or off the beach in Ixtapa, or up the coast at towns like Troncones, but residency at the Krystal sets a balance of simplicity, luxury, security, efficiency and proximity serving as home away from home.
It would be nice to have a kitchen but the abundance of delicious affordable restaurant food more than makes up for the extra effort and gets us out of the house. In truth we don’t spend much time in our room beyond sleeping. Morning coffee on our balcony, reading the news from home on our tablets. The sun rises over the hills and the hotels like a stage curtain. On the beach below the runners and the walkers weave rhythm along the waves. The restaurants are busy serving breakfast though the recorded music at the pool does not begin until nine. The sunbathers around the pool stake out their recliners, as we do first thing every day before madrugada to reserve our palapa.
We usually eat breakfast or lunch at one of the two restaurants at the hotel, the Aquamarina which is attached to the hotel lobby and faces the pool, and the Velas which is across the pool deck under a separate roof and facing the ocean. Sometimes we go for the buffet and sometimes the menu. The quality of the food is the same either place, and same with the service at table. More than their uniform etiquette of high standard hospitality, they befriend us, and through the years we know a core group who have worked on staff about as long as we have been guests, and several who have been on the team at least five years. The Krystal employs 152 people at peak season. Most of the ones we know work in visible service positions. Customer servants. Some work behind the scenes, managers, kitchen people, laundry and housekeeping. Ones we get to know best are usually food and beverage servers.
We know they have lives and families beyond the hotel campus where they work. We respect them as being private people. Without prying we have grown to be privy to their details. Over time we have established relationships. We are friends and I find that now I go down specifically to Ixtapa Zihuatanejo to visit them as much as to escape winter.
If we stopped going down there I would miss them. Jesus, Anabel, Juan Toro, Jose, Gloria, Adelina, Josefina, Toribio, Maria De La Luz, Martin, Jaime, Rafael, Lorenzo. These are only the food and drink servers at the hotel. Plus the dozens of servants who serve us at the restaurants where we eat in both towns. Add in all the vendors who sell stuff on the beach. Taxi drivers. Keepers of the shops. Souvenir kiosk proprietors. Musicians. We cross paths in their community. We are small parts of the social economy. They are a main part of my sentimental ecology. At this point of my life it hardly matters that I while away my winters doing missionary volunteer work or practicing decadent leisure on a Pacific beach, there’s no excuse anymore spending weeks immersed in a foreign culture year after year and act as if it doesn’t count as real life because it happens on vacation.
This particular year revealed realities challenging my serenity. I perceived changes I did not choose. The whole aura refocused the dimensions of choices of what to do and made me wonder what we were doing. Wherever we went, on foot or by taxi or bus, familiarity didn’t get in the way of perception and it seemed at times surreal and unromantic to be living there an entire five weeks for no good reason other than pure leisure. If I contradict myself, I’m sorry. I go there to spend days and nights worry free and then find my mind looking for signs of deeper meaning. It isn’t sufficient to blow it off on vacation. Ixtapa Zihuatanejo is not some guilty pleasure, nor is it a mission. It exists without me, I have no say in its history or destiny. It exists within me because somehow I made it part of my history and I want it to be significant. I don’t want to believe I’ve been wasting my time and money. I don’t want to admit I’ve wasted my poetics. I don’t want to think I’m wasting my love for this queer obscure little society on the sea of southern Mexico.
The first change that caught my attention was the recorded music playing in the lobby of the Krystal. Old time blues. Not contemporary renditions of bluesy classics. Not Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Amy Winehouse, Lamont Cranston or John Mayall. These recordings echoed true vintage like 78 RPM wax, polished and brushed clean yet so antique you could imagine the needle etching the grooves, like the soundtrack of a 1930s movie, vocals unmistakably black whose names and whose songs so obscure to me — was that Big Mama Thornton singing Hound Dog really? Could this one be Billie Holiday? Who were these raspy old guys wanging these acoustic guitars? Would I know Blind Lemon Jefferson or the real Muddy Waters if I heard them? No. Whose idea was this to program authentic black blues into the lobby of a Mexican hotel where people arrive and check in and out, sit on couches, waiting for taxis and for elevators — or is it me, evidence of embedded gringo racism that I would notice and think it odd — who would question if it were songs by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Andy Williams and Doris Day? I asked Alberto, a chief steward, who chose the lobby music and he said it was the choice of the new manager.
Another change to the lobby, the murals above the front desk, over the elevators and above the walkway to the pool deck, were modernized. Still expressing the airy bliss of the beach, and as family friendly as a Kodak moment the new images were more literal, photorealistic than the images they replaced. The old murals didn’t seem so old — not ten years — more dreamy and painterly. Oh well, I thought, nothing wrong with what’s new. Not that the older murals were sacred. The walls used to be blank.
It seemed to me the philodendrons that cascaded down the corner flower box planters in the triangular atrium going up all dozen floors to the skylight had been recently trimmed, didn’t cascade one floor to the next so much this year.
The first few days at least seemed hotter than normal but we told ourselves we would get used to it. It was the differential from coming from bone chilling cold. It was global warming. It was a side-effect of growing older. Housekeeping provided two bottles of water a day. Keeping wet was never an issue. The room was kept air conditioned during the day but we would shut it off at night and open the balcony to the night air and to listen to the surf. Most nights were clear but some cloudy and the nights cooled off less than usual for perfect sleeping. It wasn’t the heat so much as the humidity. Like summer heat in Minnesota, which I tell myself I revel in. I read a couple of English spy novels about the Cold War and some nonfiction from a thinker named Harare and the London Economist, a newspaper. I read a detective novel by the daughter of Tony Hillerman, a legacy story of the Navajo tribal police. I thought about a guide we encountered on the beach a few years ago named Luis, who scolded us for sitting on our asses drinking beer all day. We actually wanted to sign up for one of his natural habitat tours but he hasn’t come around since. I am hoping he has not become a guerrilla of the hills plotting to overthrow lazy ass yanquis.
When we first came down we used to go to the farmacia to buy a prepaid phone card sponsored by Ladatel or Telmex and go to public phones on the boulevard, plug the chip side of the card in and dial home to talk to our son Vincent, then college age and minding the house when it was a not so empty nest. A few years later there were internet cafes in Ixtapa and for a couple of pesos we could email our kids to check in. They encouraged us to stay in touch, especially as our stays away lengthened from ten days to two or three weeks. Then the Krystal installed its own internet work stations in the lobby under the atrium. By the time that became too popular the hotel installed wi-fi in the lobby and Roxanne had an iPad. For a few years wi-fi was iffy in the hotel rooms but when it was good we could not just email our kids but Skype them. Now the wi-fi in the rooms is five star and everybody has iPhones so we text, send pictures, talk to the new baby… Never mind those years when Michel lived in Switzerland and it didn’t matter to them we weren’t in Minneapolis.
The public phones still exist on the main routes of Ixtapa. I never see them in use. The prepaid cards used to feature a picture of a futbol star or Our Lady of Guadeloupe. The former internet cafes have changed hands and become cantinas, restaurants, even farmacias. For a while one was a Zumba studio. In the lobby of the Krystal people peruse their smart phones. Old time blues plays from the ceiling. I would like to meet this new manager.
We mosey the public plazas of Ixtapa our first nights looking for dinner. In five weeks we will dine at several places more than once and try new places at least once. Word got around fast among the annual anglos on the beach that El Camaron Azul, the Blue Shrimp, had changed ownership and the food and the service wasn’t as good anymore. Sad to see empty tables. Word spread fast.
Toscano’s, across the courtyard in the same plaza, still draws a full patio; whether old man Toscano is really Florentine his cuisine boasts lasagna the envy of all the Italian cosinas on the coast, and they bake their own bread. Ruben’s on an extension of the same plaza boasts top grade hamburgers and New Zealand cheese in a malt shop setting. There are souvenir kiosks outlayed for browsing amid the dry monumental fountains in the plaza. A mall of taco shops, a farmacia and pop up cantinas fronts a bare vacant lot almost one block big. It’s a blight, fenced in, weedy with rubble and trash and inexplicably undeveloped as it stands virtually at what could be the commercial heart of Ixtapa. It’s been a wasteland like this for twenty years, and like some things one might question, nobody seems to know why. It’s kept fenced, and its perimeter is surrounded by variously going concerns and some not going, like the former internet cafe now formerly a Zumba studio.
Further at the fringe of the wasted block near a small mall anchored by a Spanish bank is a sports bar and restaurant known as The General’s. Hosted by Genaro Salinas, local guy who would easily win the Nobel Prize for Nicest Guy, it’s the most popular establishment in town. More than a dozen TV screens of various sizes show contests in real time brought in by satellite. The decor between TV screens on the walls and the ceiling of the main building is all posters, pennants, jerseys, sweaters and paraphernalia of sports teams, professional and amateur, mostly from North America and mostly football and hockey. It hosts the biggest NFL Super Bowl fiesta. Weekday nights always hockey. The Canadians rally to The General’s. It serves poutine. Outside the main roof they fill tables as far out into the plaza they can legally go, sometimes using a corner of the vacant lot next door, but the most comfortable chairs are at the tables inside.
Behind The General’s the plaza continues with shops and more places to eat out of doors under awnings and umbrellas. Lalo the renown chef operated a place along this corridor before he passed away year before last. Now the space features barbecue ribs and pulled pork six nights a week. Another new enterprise calls itself Shorty’s, headed by some ex kitchen henchmen of the General, competing with similar food without any sports TV. Next door some remodelers are painting and installing fixtures for what will be a sports bar called the Little General’s, which will concentrate on serving beer and spirits to draw the drinkers so the main General’s can fix more on food and dining to keep ahead of upstart cantinas like Shorty’s and the pork place.
I have said before: there’s an abundance of good food at Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo. Keep moseying to the main plaza where a big elaborate bandstand like a grand gazebo centers the plaza like a courthouse or city hall. Sometimes singers, musicians and dancers in old time Mexican traditional clothes perform a show. Around the bandstand the vendors display their kiosks. I have purchased mobiles, small bowls, a ceramic skull, wall plaques and other bright colored trinkets from these vendors, plainly family ventures, mom and pop, kids, sometimes grandparents, their stalls neatly arranged under the bright plaza lights. More shops and restaurants encircle the open plaza. Cafe New Zealand in neon dresses as an innocent ice cream parlor featuring burgers and fries. Another upstart, Sabrina’s, in its second year, is located in the back of the plaza, still trying to organize itself and establish an identity behind its owner and namesake. It offers Italian cuisine and for some reason seems to attract sophisticated French Canadiens. The night we were there they ran out of lasagna.
The outer edge of the plaza leads to passageways between shops and more places to eat. We find Danny Boy’s located in what used to be Mama Norma’s. Danny Boy and his father Daniel used to work for the Blue Shrimp. This is their first year. At the Blue Shrimp they knew Lalo when he was a chef there, where he first invented his three cheese shrimp and mushroom flambee now known as Lalo’s Shrimp on Danny Boy’s menu. Danny does it justice.
A pet favorite of ours is a sidewalk cafe behind the plaza called Los Bigotes de Zapata — Zapata’s Moustache — also called Martin’s. While many restaurants in Ixtapa promote themselves extra for their fine kitchen skills and dining atmosphere — why there are so many Italian restaurants on the Guerrero coast I’ll never know but collectively there is no better bolognese sauce found on the planet — Martin’s menu sticks to Mexican recipes. You can find fajitas anywhere. It’s gringo food. Martin’s serves an outstanding mole sauce on their chicken enchiladas on a platter with rice and black beans. I could lick the plate.
Further down the alleyway of shops called La Patio there’s Frank’s, seemingly at the depth of a dark mysterious corridor there’s an oversized hut selling beer and wood oven pizza. As you emerge to open public lighting there’s another patio cantina before you get to the end called Tequila y Salsa which serves exquisite barbecue ribs. On the way back to the hotel along the main boulevard there’s a grocery store and both an ice cream shop and a gelato stand almost side by side.
Another good restaurant called Deborah’s faces the main boulevard. The place used to be called the Hacienda, all archways and high ceilings and wrought iron. The service was slow, dinners so so but we would go for a cheap breakfast. An older fat lady was always there behind the bar handling the cash. There was a vivid portrait of her almost painted on velvet in her younger days when she was boss and still beautiful. Always at a table near the bar sat an old skinny French guy with a dog at his feet. He and the woman would exchange words or he would read a newspaper. Roxanne and I would sit at a table as far from the kitchen as we could near the open air but I recall the unshaven white haired guy spoke French when he spoke to the lady.
Years and years later the building came to open under the name of Deborah’s. Deborah is the General of genteel dining in Ixtapa. There are no TV monitors. All the dishes on her menu are scratch made. There’s nothing crazy exotic and esoteric on the menu but a selection of standards prepared and served to please so you might say, that’s the best mahi mahi, the best alfredo, the best fajitas, the best flambee shrimp — the best chocolate cake — you ever had. Deborah likes to hear how good she is. She cruises from table to table to greet guests and patrol the dinner shift. There is something more than vanity to her. There is something definitive about Deborah’s presence in the hospitality trade and thus the chamber of commerce in Ixtapa. She’s been around probably more than half her life — her age isn’t as obvious as her wisdom or experience on her face. She came down from British Columbia from high school. Learned her trade from Ixtapa restaurant dama named Mama Norma. Worked as Mama Norma’s apprentice. Learned to chef. Learned to bake. Learned to run a restaurant. When Mama Norma passed away, Deborah carried on at the location that is now Danny Boy’s, calling it, per the lease, Mama Norma and Deborah’s. (Danny Boy’s lease today might say it’s Mama Norma’s in fine print and Danny Boy’s.) There is another small cantina on the boulevard called Chilibean’s, where Gernaro the General was once a manager, where they say was Deborah’s affiliate, as was reputedly the Blue Shrimp until the past summer when it got itself divested. Deborah will not confirm or deny her connections to other restaurants except to say she doesn’t have anything to do with Danny Boy’s. Rumors link her and the late chef Lalo romantically as well as in business way back to his days at the Blue Shrimp, before I actually became aware of either of them or their roles in the hospitality culture of Ixtapa.
Lalo passed away from diabetes, alcoholism, kidney disease and heartache. It was too bad. He was a nice guy. A little shy for someone fronting a major show. Now just about every restaurant in town except the Italian ones offer some variation of Lalo’s flambee shrimp, and the only credit Lalo gets is from Danny Boy, who probably learned it from Lalo when he was 13.
Deborah employs two specialists every night to cook Lalo’s shrimp flambee at the dinnertable. One is a foxy young woman named Zuri. Out of respect for her skills I pay attention to the process and the ingredients, try not to stare. The finished sauce tastes like I recall it should. I ask for extra rice. Roxanne and I share Deborah’s award winning chocolate cake and coffee for dessert. It’s a restaurant comfortable to linger at when the dinner rush is peaked.
There are but two of what anglos would recognize as chain restaurants in either town, both in Ixtapa: Domino’s pizza upstairs at the plaza facing the boulevard in the mall above the wine store, and they deliver; and a Subway sandwich shop off the entrance of the Hotel Fontan. There used to be a KFC. No one misses it. There’s a sushi place there now. All the rest of the food places from the shaved beef taco stands to the fine sit down places and all the watering holes and patio cantinas in between, all personally branded, independent kitchens. Both towns thrive on hospitality, food and drink. It all comes at you that they are integral organic members of the socioeconomic community, a homestake in local outcomes. This is not what anyone would call a corporate town, even if the big hotels, major employers, are corporately owned from afar and staffed by locals. The restaurants, whoever actually owns them, seem to belong to local proprietors and entrepreneurs in residence. For the long haul. Thus it’s all comfort food to me. I’m comforted to support the local economy. The Krystal has opened a Starbucks in the lobby, but it is not covered in the all-inclusive and cannot be billed to your room, cash only.
Dinner for two in Ixtapa averages the US dollar equivalent of $30 in Ixtapa including drinks and tips, and slightly less in Zihuatanejo but you need to factor the cost of taxis.
Roxanne and I are inseparable. Through the years we have met up with other winter vacationers of our age group who show up every year in January and February. We meet up on the beach or at the pool and talk about their lives, kids, grandkids, jobs, and any news and gossip going around. Everyone loves Roxanne. This is true everywhere we go. People love to talk with her. She listens and asks questions. She has a sunny laugh. I’m no antisocial loner but I tend shy and mind my own business usually when left to myself, but with Roxanne I gain privy to people’s inner lives by association on the beach. People accept me and talk freely around me because I’m Roxanne’s husband, and everyone loves Roxanne. Sometimes we meet up in large groups with reservations for dinner. Roxanne has her birthday every year in Mexico and it generates a banquet. This year we celebrated at Bandidos in Zihuatanejo, about fifteen of us. The chicken molcajetes are the rage, a local stew served in a carved volcanic urn, available also in shrimp and meatless, it’s too much for one person.
This year we arrived a week ahead of any of our gringo cronies. It gave us more time to get together with our Mexican friends, who also love Roxanne. She is uncomfortable with the Mexicans only because she feels lost in Spanish and insecure in conversations, though it doesn’t seem to stifle our Mexican friends and they talk to her anyway. Roxanne admits that somehow she thinks she understands what she’s hearing and she is understood. I am no Miguel de Cervantes but I don’t shirk from trying my best espanol because my friends will correct me and guide me to what I want to say, and half the time they just want to practice ingleis.
We learned our first day Adelina, cashier and hostess at the hotel’s Aquamarine restaurant, died in December of a brain aneurysm. Adelina esta muerte. Three children under 12. Age 33. Always looked good in her uniform, hair in a bun. Ten, fifteen years ago I asked her how to say high heels en espanol. “Zapatillas,” she obliged. Only this year we learned she was married to Martin (another Martin) one of the lead waiters. We also learned that Letty, a friend of ours through Anabel who works in the laundry, has breast cancer.
From the outset our visit is shadowed by sorrows, much as last year when we arrived to learn Fernando the philosopher guide and the boat captain Antonio of Big Ben’s Fishing, Benny’s stepson, both passed away the previous summer from cancer. Lalo the chef only died the previous winter. It didn’t seem like justice for this kind and gracious society to suffer sorrows of this succession, yet what patron saint keeps them safe and exempt? I would call her Santa Nadie. Saint Nobody. I am sheepish to acknowledge sorrow at the scene of recreation and ask myself why it beguiles me so much to believe Ixtapa is supposed to be a paradise I vouch for, someplace transcendental where there are only good UV rays, everybody eats, the beach is an eternal stage play of innocent fun and life is all unicorns and butterflies (unicornios y mariposas) and tropical escape to imaginary anonymous adventure where nobody gets hurt — nobody hurts.
This is where I’m burying the lede.
We were three weeks deep into our stay, a few days past Roxanne’s birthday and our friend Bob learned Toscano’s, the Italian restaurant on the two fountain plaza opposite the Blue Shrimp and the souvenir kiosks next to Ruben’s hamburgers, was hosting a mariachi band during the dinner hour that Thursday and seating would be by reservation only. Bob talked to the old Dom Toscano himself and got a reservation for eleven seats at the very last table they were allowed to put out on the plaza. We arrived that night anticipating dinner and a floor show.
Every table at Toscano’s was sold out and the servers kept hopping to fulfill the food orders while a ten piece band in full dress regalia like old Mexican tuxedos gathered around the nearby non-functioning fountain in the plaza and played their hearts out. The crowd was not limited to the patrons of Toscano’s but included pedestrian passersby, browsers at the souvenir kiosks, and anyone within earshot of the music dining at Blue Shrimp or Ruben’s or on up and down the plaza, but the band faced towards and played towards Toscano’s where the sound was most fresh and clear to the audience. They played the classics. Toscano’s crowd was mostly gringos like us who could barely recite the ay-ay-ay-ay part of Cielito Lindo but couldn’t name That Tune. Violins, trumpets, bass, guitars, the mariachi guys completed their set and took a bow to big applause. Standing ovation. They passed around a sombrero and its crown filled with dollars and peso notes.
Then our friend Bob asked one of the trumpet players if they knew “Tijuana Taxi”. Without a moment of hesitation the band assumed formation around the dry fountain and went straight through the Herb Alpert pop classic. When they were done Bob gave the guy a big tip. The whole rest of vacation Bob laughed to himself saying of all the mariachi bands he ever asked, these guys were the first to know Tijuana Taxi.
I admit I was surprised. I guess its not traditional. Clearly these were practiced musicians. The food was excellent everybody agreed. I went for the lasagna and it did not disappoint. It didn’t bother me we were among the last to be served because they kept the wine and fresh baked bread coming during the music. We were in no big rush. Table conversation more or less softly probed where each of us regarded Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg and that Pete Guy. Iowa Caucus. New Hampshire. Super Tuesday. Buzz words. Doggie whistles. American politics has never been discussed in such roundabout condescension.
One of the itinerant busker musicians came along and set up his kit alongside the fountain. He was the guitarist who played Andean pan flute. This plaza between Toscano’s and the Blue Shrimp was open mic territory for the itinerant acts who trek from plaza to plaza and sing and play a couple numbers to the diners at the restaurants and cantinas and then pass their hats for pesos. Some are outright invasive. Comes to mind a mom, pop and child act where dad plays an obnoxious drum while mom dances with hoops and torches of fire and the little girl does gymnastics. Most offensive is the kerosene for the fires. Others like the classical guitarist and the guitar girl with the weak voice who wants to be Joni Mitchell are innocuous, like the pan flute guy with guitar, who always opens with El Condor Pasa. He was fluting the chorus of Sweet Caroline when the plaza went boom-boom-boom.
I looked up towards the souvenir kiosks and saw a young man in a red jersey and a beige baseball cap start running with a gun in his hand. He fired once more toward the kiosks and once in the air. You could see fire from the barrel. I stood up and watched him run down the plaza into the crowd past Ruben’s, where he took a hard left and ran behind Ruben’s towards the parking lot beyond.
A Mexican man lay splayed like a rag doll on his back on the pavement between the other fountain and a row of souvenir kiosks on the plaza, motionless and bloody to the chest and the head. Beside him a woman wept with her face in her hands, also bloody. I walked to the scene and stopped when I could see enough and stay out of the way. Men from Blue Shrimp brought a table cloth to shroud the man from the knees up. He wore khaki shorts and his legs were turning purple. The woman, on her knees at the kiosk, wept inconsolably attended by another lady and a young man. A few husky guys in blue t-shirts on cell phones seemed to take informal charge of the scene, and I figured they were plainclothes cops. An ambulance silently parked lights flashing along the street outside the plaza and EMTs rushed a gurney to the aid of the sobbing woman. Troops arrived shortly, or maybe they were federal police, armed with machine rifles and wearing camouflage battle gear. I spoke to one who appeared in charge and told him a description of the act, the gunman and his escape.
Our dinner party settled our checks with the waiter, who was shaking. Most of the restaurant patrons and the plaza crowd went away. The pan flute guy with guitar packed his gear and slipped away. The classical guitarist, an anglo Aussie with a shaggy beard and hair shaved off one side, on deck to play next passed by me and said, “He ran right by me,” and kept going the opposite direction of the shooter. The EMTs calmed the woman, put her on oxygen and took her away on the gurney to the ambulance. She had been shot in the face. After they took the woman the crowd wisped away, including ourselves and the plainclothes cops with cell phones, leaving the scene to the troops, yellow tape, the restaurant people, people from the other souvenir kiosks and passersby who didn’t yet know what happened, and to the murdered man lonely on the pavement under a tablecloth with his purple legs sticking out, his sandals different ways akimbo.
We more or less walked each other home to the hotel and to the Bay View. The next day it was the talk of all the anglo tourists, sure it was the dirty work of the cartels. At first they said both victims died, but it turned out the woman survived. They were a married couple operating a trinket stand. They have three children, 8, 6 and 4. Somebody came to them demanding to be paid $400 MX pesos a week — tribute, protection, a licensing fee — about $20 USD. They said no. Maybe they said fuck you. Maybe they said go to hell. Maybe they said politely, we’re sorry, senor, that’s too much money. They said no. So that somebody shot them point blank in a crowded plaza just after nine o’clock on a Thursday night and ran away.
Far as I know nobody set up a Go Fund Me page for the widow and kids. Nobody seemed to know who they are.
To get through the gossip clutter our friend Bob turned to his smart phone at the beach and consulted a blog by ZihuaRob, an American expat with a withering eye on Zihuatanejo society, who confirmed the murder and assault but identified nobody. A train of commentary at the blog chased back and forth down intersecting rabbit holes connecting American foreign policy and weapons trafficking south to the cartels while Mexican border forces are deployed along Guatemala to keep out migrants trying to get to the USA, who are trying to escape with their lives against gangs and cartels making a lot of money sending drugs north. These gangs and cartels exert power with weapons that outgun local police who depend on the federal police to keep actual order in Mexico, which is overrun with fundamental corruption and relies on its good citizens to uphold the rules of law and civility. Nobody offered anything beyond condolences to the family of the victims.
For me that gunman put five bullet holes in my faith in Mexico leaving the Third World behind or leading it into the new world of the 21st Century, however such things continue to be measured country by country from now on. My faith is not dead either. It’s wounded enough to let go of the romance version of Mexican innocence. Los Bigotes de Zapata is not a cute cartoon amigo but a symbol of revolution and self determination. To embrace Mexico is to recognize it’s a new race invented after the 15th Century and may still be rapidly evolving along with its ancient and modern history as a post modern pueblo culture. There is a certain native talent to Mexicans that eludes stereotyping but proceeds to do the best it can. Poder mejor. A vigorous sense of responsibility and pride. To be nice. Simpatico. This is where my faith projects Mexico.
Even so, seeing a killing jolts me into real world worry about safety and security. The morning after the shooting at Toscano’s (local coverage and social media described it as happening near Ruben’s) I read the morning paper from my hometown on a tablet through hotel wi-fi and read that the night before in Minneapolis somebody shot two people on a bus downtown and one of them died at the scene. The shooter was arrested four blocks away within an hour. I wondered if any of the cops in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo put out any effective dragnet last night. Is it all sort of random, you never know when your number’s up, or is it karma, what goes around comes around — fools names and fools faces…
Also that morning after the murder I read the obituary of a Chinese doctor who died from a virus that got him in trouble with the Communist Party. Dr Li Wenliang in December noticed a pattern occurrence of a rather lethal new virus in his home town of Wuhan. When he wrote colleagues in the medical community about local outbreaks of this new virus he was hushed by the Party for inciting panic and disorder and hustled off to detention. Word got out anyway about covid-19 the novel coronavirus, Dr Li was put back into social circulation serving the medical community, where he caught covid-19 infection and died.
By this time world journalism was covering the pandemic though only a few cases were confirmed in America, nobody known dead. Epidemiologists predicted a spread across the planet. The president canceled foreigners traveling from China. China went into a lockdown of social quarantine. They erected massive field hospitals in record time. From trying to keep a lid on it, the Chinese were now informing the world of its research and real time coping strategies for this highly contagious disease. Nobody is immune to it. Pessimists said it would eventually infect 80% of the world population.
Donald Trump, the American president, tells everybody in America it’s totally under control, it’s only one person from China. In his opinion the warmer weather of April would make the virus miraculously go away. The World Health Organization in Geneva declared an international emergency. Within days Singapore acknowledged it had cases. It was heading to America. Anybody with half a nickel of sense could see that if Trump formed an opinion contrary to science the nation faced doom.
From Mexico I’m pondering murder and the coronavirus, and news from Kenya that locusts are descending in storms and ravaging the vegetation of eastern Africa. Firestorms leveled Australia. Volcanoes and earthquakes rumble from underground. Nations constantly rise against nations. Here comes the plague. Cue famine. Dissolve to close up of the face of Anti Christ. At least before the End Days I get a few more massages from Isabel at casa numero dos down the beach from our palapa.
I live in America where people shoot each other all the time. For the damndest of reasons. Usually in the service of some vendetta or the pursuit of ill-gotten gains. There were more than 15,000 murders in the USA in 2019. 48 in my home town compared with 510 in Chicago.
Mexico recorded over 35,000 murders last year.
Thirty five thousand.
All this while I’ve been minimizing the danger and satirizing the Trump administration’s migration policy and conflating it with Trump’s grudges against Mexican trade and his state department’s travel warnings against travel to Mexico. People might think I’m brainwashed (does anybody remember a republican named George Romney, Mitt’s father, who once ran for president and doomed his campaign by publicly admitting he was brainwashed about Vietnam?) or at best naively ignorant of the violence you can encounter in cute little Mexico. I am neither. I am aware. I’m not suddenly woke to the poverty of the Mexican lower class, the institutional sexism, the might of the cartels, the corruption of the oligarchy and the acceptance of violent means to get people to do what they want. I may be a bumpkin from the heartland of North America but I see and recognize life as it is. I’ve been in a state of serenity to accept things I cannot change and easy to take courage to accept things I can, but with this I don’t know if I know the difference. There is a butterfly effect. How Roxanne and I conduct ourselves as guests of Mexicans reflects upon America and Americans and how we would treat them if they were guests in our town. Given the official talk of our president they aren’t supposed to feel welcome in American territory, and yet we anticipate being welcomed to Mexico without so much as a pet the dog. It’s been our specialty, as it is with all our international travel, to avoid political unrest if possible. It’s not our mission to infiltrate any grass roots efforts worldwide to modernize humanity, that’s just how it goes when you make friends with people who live in foreign countries. In Mexico we trust Isabel, Anabel and Jesus and so on, that they would never lead us into danger. Yet there we were, finishing dinner, all of our own accord, the pan flute guy was fluting Sweet Caroline and all the anglos knew the next line went whoa whoa whoa… boom boom boom. Boom. Boom.
That’s something I cannot change I challenge whether to accept because I couldn’t tell the difference between serenity and courage. Very nearsighted, I was not wearing glasses at dinner that night; though I saw what I saw the crisp sharp details evade me and it’s like an Impressionist scene, no good as an eyewitness in case they ever assembled a lineup, a defense attorney would tear me to shreds if I ever testified, and I didn’t. What tested my serenity about this event begged my courage. I learned that I felt no fear. I was angry. A man was murdered on my vacation, a woman wounded and widowed. People working in the vacation business selling Mexi knickknacks. My presence at the plaza and all the others did not change the outcome. Over $20 USD, mas o menos. There was no herd immunity for the dead man. Sad fact remains if it could happen there at the plaza in Ixtapa it could happen anywhere, any time.
Roxanne and I made a pact not to tell our kids. They would never allow us to come back.
We always acted as if the violence was concentrated in certain geographic areas and among Mexicans most of the time. Mexican towns along the northern border such as Tijuana, Reynosa Nuevo Laredo and Juarez were famous hot spots. The killings were between gangs, between cartels. Nobody bothered tourists. The Mexican state of Guerrero which includes Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo also includes a megacity Acapulco, which has a high murder rate, as does the state of Quintana Roo because of Cancun. As with any city for tourists, Paris or Dublin, be aware of the surroundings. Don’t go shady places after dark and especially at two in the morning. Don’t engage vice — if you think vice equates to fun then watch out for thrills un-bargained for. The tourist coda has been to believe the killings were always between Mexicans except for gringo yahoos looking for trouble.
It was nothing for tourists to worry about. Tourists were safe. Gringo kidnappings were an urban legend. The alcoholic drink poisonings in the Cancun region were overblown. An average tourist at Ixtapa Zihuatanejo has a greater chance of drowning in the bay of Playa Palmar, a greater chance of being grabbed by a shark or being struck by lightning than being shot to death in Ixtapa, the taxi drivers will say.
Americans from the United States make up fewer and fewer of the guests at the Krystal and the other hotels on the beach in the winter. It’s a fact. Americans are afraid to vacation in Mexico. This moment, they are afraid to vacation anywhere, but the past five or ten years the numbers of vacationers to Ixtapa Zihuatanejo from America has steadily declined to fifteen percent of what it was at the turn of this century. What used to be a competitive airline market non-stop from Minneapolis has defaulted to one carrier twice a week and ticket prices are no longer a bargain. It’s as if the American vacation industry wrote off Ixtapa. Granted, Ixtapa appealed to the Boomer generation, which is gradually letting go of its haunts, but they failed to pass Ixtapa Zihuatanejo as a legacy destination for the generations of their/our offspring. It isn’t cool. It’s not Spring Breaky enough. That’s part of the appeal to me, its modest sanity. Mexico’s reputation for violence amplified by the State Department in its travel cautions will keep suppressing demand from the US, and Americans will seek safer beaches and deserts to winter.
Canadians apparently didn’t get the memo. While the presence of American visitors keeps diminishing the proportion of Canadian anglos keeps increasing. Instead of meeting new people from Michigan, Massachusetts, Colorado, Oregon or Illinois we’re meeting many more folks from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. More and more French speakers are overheard in the crowds and it’s unlikely Ixtapa has attracted coteries of tourists from France. Among English speakers the Canadians distinguish themselves by pronouncing their soft A sounds as ah, like Europeans, Brits and Latins do, not like ayh the way Americans do. (Colorahdo/Colorayhdo.) At the sports bars they love hockey, though they boast the defending NBA champion Raptors. NFL football is big through playoffs and Super Bowl but weeknights and after football season there can be three or four hockey games going on at the same time on different screens at the General’s with maybe an NBA or college basketball game or two here and there, and once in a blue moon professional soccer. If there are no matches or games the sports bars rock with pop country videos that appeal to Molson drinkers and American cowboys/cowgirls alike. Maple leaf flags adorn poolside umbrellas. At the variety shows at night at the hotel the stage emcee calls out to the crowd to applaud where they are from and when he says Canada there is a loud chorus of whoops but when he says United States there is a murmur. Same with games and activities around the pool if an anglo competes they’re usually from Calgary, Winnipeg or Saskatoon. Gringos from Estados Unidos keep low profiles and mix in.
Making up for the rest of the decline of American tourists are Mexicans themselves. When the emcees shout out to the crowds to cheer the places they are from, they don’t just say Mexico, they call out to individual states — Jalisco yaaaay! Puebla yaaaaay! Not many years ago the percentage of guests who were Mexican was maybe five percent, and when we first started coming there were times when there may have been no Mexicans at all staying at the Krystal. You would see a few shy families, multigenerational, and young couples. Middle aged couples. Young couples with babies and toddlers. Young professionals. Crossover SUVs made by Chevy, VW and Totota parked shiny in the cul de sac where the old tennis courts used to be before the Amara condos were built, with license plates from Jalisco, Sinaloa, Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua, Durango, Michoacan (which is not same as Michigan) and Mexico City.
Rapidly as I noticed the disappearance of the gringos, the preponderance of Canadians, I saw the appearance of the Mexican middle class. At first it was just a surge around the first Monday of February, Dia de la Constitucion, celebrating long weekends over a national holiday. Families, couples, urban hipsters, people with means and style, working class persons like ourselves checked in at the Krystal brought there in bus coaches or driving down from Guadalajara, as I noticed the hotel marketing success drawing the leisure seekers from its own cities of the region without surf and beaches. From the emergent Mexican middle class come the young families at the kiddie pools and at the beach. The multigenerational families with grade school kids and teenagers. The young couples, some discreetly LGBTQX. Families with cousins, aunts and old people who hire the trios who walk the beach in cowboy boots to play guitar, drum and accordion and sing the old time Mexican songs at the palapas. To me this was all evidence of success in Mexico. I cheered. This revealed to me true signs that Mexico was improving. I observe this from an American continuity, of course, comparing our own exceptional point of view of course, seeing a graduation of society towards prosperity as I have experienced it at home and in other western lands.
I used to read a newspaper in English called The News which was peddled by a guy named Victor on the beach every day but Sunday, a paper published in Mexico City that covered the whole country, which cost $15 MX pesos a day — 75 cents USD. I read it for signs of progress. Too often it told stories like the 43 students from a teachers college who went missing in Iguala, a town in the hills of northern Guerrero, in September 2014 and never turned up. Follow up stories in The News never solved the crime by the time the newspaper ceased publication a couple of years ago leaving Victor selling soccer t-shirts. Victor says it’s the internet did in the paper. That itself should have been another sign of progress, universal technology. I preferred newsprint partly because of all the trouble it takes to put a newspaper together every day and ship it a few hundred miles for somebody to read on a beach instead of thumbing up down and sideways with a smartphone like all the Mexicans now do.
All you need is a place to charge it.
Meantime I noticed the recorded music in the Krystal lobby had changed back to the Muzak melodies of old movie themes like Gone With the Wind. When I noticed it I wondered if I just noticed it or if it had always been this way, and I started to gaslight myself. Every time I went through the lobby I listened. The theme from Romeo and Juliet. Baby Elephant Walk. Lara’s Theme from Dr Zhivago. The Three Penny Opera. Maybe the old manager was back.
Every day our housekeeping maid Neli left us bath towel origami sculptures with flower petal features. We are a tidy couple but it was luxury to have the floor swept, the bathroom cleansed and the towels and bed linen changed every day. They do not use fitted sheets either. The amount of sand we tracked indoors every day might fill a bucket by the time we went home. Neli got a tip every day.
One evening after the beach we were up in our room getting ready to meet friends for dinner, Roxanne in the bathroom after her shower and using the hair dryer, keeping the door closed for my sake because she knows I don’t like noise from hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, jet engines and power tools. I was getting dressed and reading. Roxanne called out from the bathroom. I went to the door. She asked me to open the door, she couldn’t open the door from the inside. I tried but the knob turned but there was no retracting the tongue bolt by the mechanism of the knob. I called the desk. The lady said someone from maintenance would be there in five minutes. Roxanne lamely kept engaging the knob as if it would change its mind. She said she was okay. She was wearing a bath towel.
Within five minutes or so the maintenance guy knocked at the door with his tool cart parked in the hall. He was a short young guy in overalls with black hair that spiked naturally without balm, and deep black eyes. He spoke no useful English but understood me well enough to figure out the problem, got some screwdrivers out of his cart and began trying to leverage the knob and the plate without damaging the door frame. I tried not to crowd him watching him work and his attempts did nothing to open the door. He used a walkie talkie to consult somebody in Spanish. He tried the ring around the knob and the plate from another angle. No good. He talked on the walkie talkie. In a moment the senior maintenance guy showed up, an older drawn faced guy with forehead wrinkles dressed in khaki shirt and pants. He and the younger guy consulted. With now three of us hovered at the bathroom door there was less room for me to see over the senior guy’s shoulder what he did, but he sprung the latch and got it open without damaging anything. He took off the knob and said he would return to replace it in one hour. We thanked him and the younger guy, finished dressing and met up with our dinner companions not late.
We figured the maintenance guy would use a master key to let himself in the room and fix the doorknob while we were gone.
Turned out he didn’t show up with a new doorknob until the next morning while we were reading the news, just before Neli came to clean the room and we were ready to go down for breakfast.
On a very windy day I approached Rafael and his crew to take a parasailing parachute ride. Rafael bossed the concession of two rotating chutes on the beach between the Krystal and the Tesoro. He also rented boogie boards and beach umbrellas by the hour. Rafael knows me from years at the Krystal. I’ve ridden the parachute almost every year since maybe my third year down to Ixtapa. I’ve rented boogie boards and belly surfed many times more. I signed the waiver on the clipboard while his guys, Donnie and a new guy Pablo buckled me into the life vest and then harnessed me into the parachute. Donnie went over the routine with me. When Rafael blows the whistle and waves the red flag, grab the strap with the red ribbons with
both hands and pull it all the way to my heart. When I hear the whistle again and Rafael drops the flag, let go. The chute billows behind be as they buckle my harness to a thick rope. The rope goes taut and Rafael says, okay start walking. I take one step the direction of the rope and a speedboat taking off beyond the breakers into the bay and I am lifted off the sand into the sky.
When I came to Rafael to ask for a ride he said, good choice like a waiter when you order the chef’s special because he knew I relished a strong wind to take me as high as I could go. What’s more the wind was blowing in from the northwest for a change, which meant the speedboat would carry me westward over the bay towards the marina and over the massage huts instead of towards the Pacifica resort, the same old route. Any route would allow a view towards the mountains beyond the valley of Ixtapa town, over the rooftops of the condos and hotels. The view from this direction offered yachts in the harbor and a longing glimpse of the terraced private haciendas along the rocky coast west of the beach.
If you ever take such a ride, my first advice is don’t look down. Not because it’s scary but because looking down is a waste of the view, it’s just water down there and being tethered by a rope to a speedboat. The true thrill is flying high above it all.
Relax in the harness. There’s no way to slip out. Let the tension relax. Look beyond the jungle and the valley to the khaki mountains climbing to the horizon. See the tile roofs of the residential neighborhood in the valley beyond the commercial town and the plazas. Always wished to mosey back there to see who lives in that neighborhood, what the houses are like. I’ve seen it from afar, from the airplane going home. Seems like a simpatico neighborhood I’d like to see up close in the daytime, but we are always too busy at the beach in the daytime when it is always too hot to mosey much inland. Sailing high from the parachute I could picture a walking route from a forked curve in the main boulevard away from the highway out of town towards
Playa Linda. Beyond the OXXO gas station store behind Ruben’s, past the movie theater and the high school where the kids wear blue and dark blue. Past the pink and purple buildings back beyond the dark cantinas at night where nobody we know goes and we wouldn’t think to go, none of our business day or night. From the sky the business district of malls and overlapping plazas of commercial Ixtapa doesn’t seem so almighty big. There are no stop lights on the boulevard or anywhere in all of Ixtapa, where there are over a dozen stop light intersections in Zihuatanejo. There are no high rises in Zihuatanejo either, and from the sky I can see palm trees and swimming pools between them along the beach. There’s the pink and blue delfinium where you can swim with the dolphins. The triangular skylight of the atrium roof of the Krystal. All the walkers and splashers and sun bathers on the sand. The sea curling white down below, silent. Barely any noise. Sorry, no whales.
Takeoff is voluntary. Descent is mandatory. Pay no attention to the speedboat. Watch the beach, look at the tiny masajistas waving at clients walking the sand. You want to wave at somebody but can’t tell who’s looking up. You look for Rafael and his red flag. The murmur of the motorboat drops and you hear a whistle, and there’s Rafael in his t-shirt and hat and big black shades frantically waving red, so I reach up to my left with both hands and grab the strap under the flying red ribbons and pull the strap to my heart. Just as I stop still high in space no longer moving vertically I look down at everybody else looking up but there’s no time to wave. I am floating still for a second stuck thirteen stories in the air. Then Rafael blows the whistle and drops the flag to the sand and I leg go with my hands and begin to coast downward, straight down into Donnie and Pedro’s arms and barefoot I land and feel the ropes and the chute fall down behind me and they keep me standing up.
They unhook the harness and strip off the harness and the life vest and hook the rope to the next one, a lady in her thirties or forties, probably from Canada. Rafael says, good job.
A few days before we came home Roxanne and I were on our beach walk to the Pacifica and back when we observed a scene involving a separate parachute and boat crew from Rafael’s. In the entire bay there might be three speedboats servicing maybe as many as four parachute concessions as well as a couple of places renting rides on inflated hot dogs and rocket sleds they tow back and forth. This parachute set up was out front of the Hotel Fontan. The speedboat was bringing a rider back from a round trip and the flag and whistle boss of the crew started jumping up and down, whistling and waving, the crew waving their arms and shouting at the parachute rider who did nothing, didn’t pull the strap, just hung in the air drifting fast back towards the sea. The speedboat took off, the rope tightened and the parachute went back up and around for another pass. At the next approach the boss with the whistle blew frantically and waved the flag like a torch while the ground crew screamed at the rider who again did nothing and began to drift and fall. So the speedboat took off again and pulled the parachute out to sea. We resumed our walk back towards the Krystal. The speedboat pulled the chute to the landing spot again and slowed and again the rider ignored the signals from the ground that he was supposed to pull the strap with the ribbon, and again the speedboat revved up and pulled him out to sea before he crashed in the surf.
A Mexican guy about my own age holding a clipboard approached me talking Spanish too fast for me to understand and wanted me to read what was on the clipboard. It was the waiver contract signed by parachute riders like the one I signed when I rode Rafael’s. The man pointed to a clause that said in English and Spanish that if a rider fails to follow instructions to land and ends up going around again they owe a full fee for each ride around. The man held up four fingers and pointed at the still looming chute. This time short of the breakers the boat pulled
up and stopped. The man with the clipboard and half the beach ran to watch where the parachute hung in space in open water beyond the breakers and slowly descended. The flag and whistle boss of the ground crew and a lifeguard commandeered a jet ski from the rental guy. The parachute rider plunked down in the water behind the boat and the chute draped around him while the boat guys yelled at him and made sure he was all right while the guys on the jet ski went out to get him back to land. Roxanne and I resumed our walk speculating whether the parachute vendor was going to demand the extra $1500 MX pesos in cash, or would they send somebody to collect from him at his hotel — filling out the waiver they asked you to disclose your hotel.
Besides Rafael, and Victor selling newspapers, we’ve supported the roaming beach vendors throughout the years. Hector makes table sized statues out of ironwood, which he polishes with brown Kiwi shoe polish. Eagles, dolphins, bears, marlins, turtles, they are detailed and dispassionately realistic. I bought a buffalo maybe fifteen years ago, and since then also a coconut palm tree which I really like despite it is very menial to keep dusted due to its detail, or maybe because of that, I have to handle it more and it reminds me of Hector and Playa Palmar. He’s husky but like many Mexicans has lean and sturdy legs, in his case from schlepping up and down the coast every day with his big backpack of statuettes slumping his shoulders, at least two samples in his hands on display. His face is stern as he treads between palapas but he smiles wide at you if you make eye contact behind his aviator mirror shades and greet him but he doesn’t stop unless asked, he doesn’t have to, he walks slowly enough to get attention and allow you to see what he’s offering. His eagle is impressive but almost too scary. His animals have faces of indifference, even my buffalo.
He’s aging, like all of us. Seems he’s always been around from when he was barely a kid. Has a studio where he lives west of town. I think his father started it, and he may have a brother in the trade. It took a couple of conversations for me to believe he really carved them himself or hawking trinkets he picked up wholesale because he doesn’t stop to make conversation unless you show a spark of interest in what he’s holding, like my buffalo and the coconut palm, but he walks by slowly enough he’s like a cloud casting a brief shadow across the direct sun and he talks as he shuffles by in the sand, muy bien, it’s hot today, with a broad smile he turns on and off. You never hear him coming. He never hawks out loud. You never hear him raise his voice or holler Small Statues For Sale, not even a whisper.
Not like Victor with his baritone. “Revistas! English newspapers!” Time to dig out my pesos in advance. Put down my book. Now it’s “Soccer T-shirts!” Sock-air. He used to carry a bundle of papers at least a foot thick on his head with one hand and do business on the fly with the other. His legs are sturdy like a horse, and so is his chest and he carries himself a tummy so that his nickname among the Krystal staff is Panza. I seem to buy soccer shirts from him every year since the paper went dry. First from Mexico City, mostly red with some white with dark blue sleeves sponsored in the front by BIMBO in big letters, a snack doughnut cupcake brand all over Mexico and some urban centers in North America. It’s logo is a cuddly little white bear who could be the Snuggle fabric softener bear double dipping endorsements — the bear is not featured on my soccer t-shirt, just the name BIMBO. I have also a Mexican national World Cup style white jersey with the green and maroon stripes and the team seal. I got a green Mexican national jersey for Clara and a red Barcelo for Tess. Victor now treads the sand with a racksworth of shirts hooded over his head and thick neck, plus a backpack the size of a duffel bag full of inventory calling out he’s coming: Sock-air tee shirts! First day he sees me he shows off his rack. I like the royal blue and gold stripes of the Monterrey Tigres. I asked if he had any child sizes, for Anabel’s six year old grandson Yorvy whose favorite team is the Chivas from Guadalajara. He checked the backpack. A few kid sizes but no Chivas. He said maybe he could find one by next week. I bought the Monterrey Tigres.
Besides Hector and Victor I haven’t learned the names of the countless vendors who trek the beach sands selling stuff every day. Some call out to announce their presence or what they got, like the young women who weave braids and beads in your hair who say, “Hey ladies! Braids!” and “Tatuajes! Henna tattoos!” And the sunglass lady singing “Lentes!” The guys in linen pants and fancy shirts carrying black valises that open up like laptops to display rings and necklaces who expose their wares with furtive gestures to the women, almost whispering, “Platas, senoritas.” Oh yes, Roxanne and some of my sisters have browsed those valises and I’ve had to run up to the room safe for some peso notes to make a buy of something silver with elegant onyx or turquoise, a really good deal, and the deliberately come back to Roxanne year after year. Another favorite is the one I call Senora De La Ropa, a middle aged lady who hauls dozens of beach wraps and dresses on her head and her back. With that pile she looks about six feet tall but she’s barely four foot eight. She lays down the pile and selects certain ones to hold up and to lay spread on the sand. She encourages you to try something on. She makes a sale at almost every stop along the way. Roxanne knows you might find the same thing at a kiosk or a shop in town for a few pesos less but La Senora is so friendly and works so hard and brings it right to you at the palapa.
At the beach they come by selling cigars, carved onyx figurines and chess pieces, skin lotions, local made frozen fruitsicles, Zihuatanejo Ixtapa t-shirts and baseball caps, more beach wraps only maybe not as many as the Senora. We’ve bought mobiles of brilliantly painted wooden fish. Ceramic votive candle holders. The Tamale Lady comes by at about 3-3:15 with her Coleman cooler. You either got to be hungry or not because there’s no fridge or microwave oven up in the room. $2.50 USD gets two corn tamales, or $50 MX pesos. I think her name is Margarita but I’m not sure. She marches right past us because she’s right, we never buy. The default answer for the most is no. Except for the proud Tamale Lady at 3:15 the vendors don’t act insulted to hear no thanks, no gracias, and let it go at that, move on. They never hassle. They sometimes plead with their eyes. The Tamale Lady lets me know I’m missing out on a luscious taste but we’re not supposed to eat meals on the beach. Vendors never interrupt conversations or deliberately get in your face. They accept being ignored. Some actually act bored and ignore you. If you want to haggle with them, that’s your business. The jewelry guys and the beachwear sellers seem amenable to negotiate for multiple items.
Two types of vendors are mainly popular among Mexicans. One is the young guys carrying machetes and nets of fresh green coconuts, calling “Cocos, cocos!” The guys hack open the fruits and hand you a straw to drink the juice and chop it in pieces to share the meat. The other is the roving musicians, usually trios, guitars, accordions, bass, sometimes a snare and a little cymbal, always dressed in uniform as cowboys with wide Stetson hats, rugged shirts, jeans and elaborate leather boots. Families employ them to serenade their parents and grandparents with old favorites. Roxanne says she thinks Mexican music sounds like Czech polka.
Victor the former newspaper guy now selling soccer t-shirts has a brother named Javier who used to sell a stack of Spanish language magazines like People and Us and other celebrity glossies on his head. “Revistas!” His was almost a basso profundo to Victor’s baritone. They looked very much alike except the brother had a bigger tummy. Victor says Javier had to retire, developed a back condition and a bad heart. Now that I think about it, Javier is the one the hotel staff used to call Panza.
Every day we either get a visit from or encounter on a mosey walk a gentleman named Benny Guzman. Benny is the premier vendor on the beach. A big, sturdy guy like Victor, with a tummy of his own, Benny wears a faded Tommy Bahama shirt and khaki cargo shorts, a baseball cap that says something fishy like Cabela’s, wraparound shades and sandals. Like all the local residents he’s got a deep tan. Benny is the premier vendor on Playa Palmar not because he’s big, or flashy or loud or controls various concessions. He’s actually soft spoken if ubiquitous, and even though he’s a fixer who can provide guides and tours his main profession is taking people fishing. He owns three boats, a big one and two pongas. I have never gone out on one of his excursions when he himself was the captain, though our friends Bob and Rose have gone, but I have gone out on his pongas at dawn with his sub captains and enjoyed mornings trolling along the jungle desert coast and reeling in tuna. Benny will have you picked up at the hotel, driven to the embarcadero, a morning fishing and a shore lunch at Isla Las Gatas plus a taxi ride back from the pier. He likes to be paid in USD. Benny is the premier vendor on Playa Palmar because he’s honest and true. He will never guarantee you’ll catch a sailfish, or even a mahi-mahi, but he’ll make good every opportunity and honor every appointment and offer every amenity as agreed. He can’t promise you’ll see a whale or a dolphin but his captains will take you out for a nice boat ride down the sandy coast, maybe see some turtles. His guides will show you Petatlan or Troncones with grace and charm. He’ll always see you get back to the hotel happy.
He speaks of his hundred days, between December and April when he does most of his business. This year he says he’s doing well, three fishing bookings a day all week. He says it’s different now, 90% of his clients used to be Americans, 10% Canadians, now it’s the other way round. Has to charge more in Canadian money because of the exchange rate. Mexicans don’t book fishing excursions. Never treats us grudgingly that we haven’t gone fishing in three or four years, he’s always asking if we might like a whale watch, a trip up to Troncones. He says the one thing he won’t get for people is drugs. A few years ago he used to muse about running for mayor, El Presidente de Zihuatanejo. In his way I could tell he was serious, truth in jest. He could be a civic leader who would organize for the good, a true public servant. Realistically he could get elected. Just as realistically he could get killed. If Benny serves as a civic leader in his community today it is because he leads by example, a family man, honest businessman and friend. See him walking the beach, talking on his cell phone. He is not the only fishing excursion promoter on the beach, and he may not even be the cheapest but he’s the most reliable.
“You get one customer complains of a bad time and that spreads to ten. Ten spreads to a hundred,” he says, “and soon you’re out of business. It’s all on the internet these days.”
He was born and grew up in Zihuatanejo. Says the smartest thing he did when he was young was learn English. Learned early the ones who made money knew English. Calls himself Big Ben these days. Gives me his card. Says I should write about him in TripAdvisor. I observed he looks like he’s lost weight. Says he’s trying to eat right. When he says business is good this year he’s got no reason to shade me. I like seeing people like him, Genaro, Deborah, Martin and so on succeed. Live long and prosper. It’s a lot like the American Dream only it’s not on American soil. I see it wherever I travel beyond the borders of the USA, people living their Dream. For a while I am living in exile in their Dream. Benny is currently counting up the Canadians booking fishing excursions and I am left feeling less guilty for the Americans declining, a known fact that Canadians love to go fish, it’s part of the Canadian Dream. Benny for his part is an ambassador, diplomat and secret agent.
There was a certain tension on the beach at the palapas in February as more white anglos from Quebec and the western provinces showed up and found themselves mixed with tanned Americanos still rehashing the impeachment and speculating about the New Hampshire primary. Canadians revel in scolding Americans about their politics and this wave of visitors happened to bond over loathing of liberals like Trudeau and cheers to the policies of Donald Trump in the faces of a bunch of us bumpkin Democrats unfit to live in the free world. A weird alliance conflated with some Quebecois couples and some couples from Alberta lauding the rollback of federal regulations restricting oil, gas and coal. They opposed everything federal. They favored what Trump was doing, dismantling the deep state. When they overheard some of us Americans talking about Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, the mood of mocking arrogance gave way to shuns. It was like that part in Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant when he describes how the other criminals reacted to him at the draft board, they all seemed to move away from us on the Group W bench.
Where the Canadians retreated the Mexicans gladly filled in around us at the palapas. The Mexicans didn’t seem to mind if we gringos talked politics. Some of us had been down there since before the State of the Union address. The president ran a re-election ad during the Super Bowl that raised a standing ovation at the party at the General’s, which only proves the influence of western Canadians. So glib about what American policies should be to make it easier on their self-interests when they can dodge the blame when the consequences of reckless American leadership pile up on the border like car crashes on an icy highway. The Mexicans made welcome neighbors. They played dance music and tender ballads on their Bluetooth JBL speakers. Their little kids dug holes in the sand. They hired the cowboy trovadores to sing to their mothers. They bought cocos, drank the juice with straws, chewed the meat. They read novels with Spanish titles, ran off across the sand and played in the sea.
Roxanne learned on the internet that an average of eleven people a year drown in the surf off Ixtapa Bay every year. We have watched search and hope activities from afar before but never a rescue. They say the bodies wash up towards Playa Linda, the other direction from Zihuatanejo.
Researching the TripAdvisor forum Roxanne found an inquiry from somebody who wanted to know if there were any hotels in Ixtapa that didn’t rent rooms to Mexicans. The writer found Mexicans rude and arrogant, wasteful, sloppy and disrespectful. Whoa.
I resist impulses to write social media commentary except here or in private letters, but this thing Roxanne raised almost got me to act instead of letting someone else answer, the way I usually do. I would first of all remind everyone there’s a lot of Mexicans in Mexico. It’s their country. Anybody who disliked or in any way disdained Mexicans shouldn’t go to Mexico, even if to take advantage of the weather, the geography and inevitable hospitality of — if no one else — the servants. If you don’t like French people, don’t go to Paris, and if you don’t like Parisians don’t go to the Grande Jatte on a Sunday.
Secondly it would be illegal under some kind of civil rights law even in Mexico for a hotel to discriminate against Mexicans — or at least I would hope. There are economic bars to entry, surely, that might keep people from staying at hotels of a certain price range I cannot afford either, but that’s not the same as barring the door based on ethnicity alone.
As Mexico prospers as a society more and more of its people will populate its middle class and afford to enjoy leisure at the beaches just like the gringos have been doing for decades. All beaches, by the way, are public, and public access points along Playa Palmar allow the locals freedom to stake a place on the open sand near the shore right along with the hotel guests and condo patrons. After school a bunch of teenage boys practice surf boarding down on the end by the mouth to the marina. Every day might be someone’s day off and they might spend it at the beach with family. Or novios.
One hotel in fact stands out for looking like they only rent rooms to Mexicans is the Fontan. Decked in turquoise and white like a 1980s Holiday Inn its patio is always busy and the pool is full and the beach out front overflowing, the busiest place on the Bay every day, and all the guests are Mexicans. Not half. Not eighty percent. All.
I can see the trend for the Krystal to market itself to the modern Mexican middle class. It’s a smart business model, especially anticipating the demise of the anglos from the US. What almost surprises me the past few years is the tolerance of the Mexicans for American gringos in the face of official American policy towards Mexico and Mexicans. When Donald Trump got a standing ovation at the General’s sports bar on Super Bowl Sunday what did the working Mexicans think, did they realize the cheers were coming from right wing Canadians? I have been more self conscious about the image of the Ugly American the past four years than I have been self conscious of being an American at any other time of my life, including during Vietnam and the Bush years invading Iraq. It is more difficult than at home to act as though the yammerings of a president don’t really reflect the opinion my country expresses towards the people of your country. This Wall thing, it’s nothing really, nobody really believes in it. Drugs? Not your fault, it’s the American appetite. Killings? Assure me it’s always Mex on Mex. The president of my country talks trash about your country and I try to convey I don’t share his opinion, so don’t you really care either way?
Jose was a very popular waiter at the Krystal. Handsome and lovable he made some rookie mistakes when he started out but he was young and humble if maybe not too bright. He stayed popular year after year developing hospitality skills to woo the clientele in English and Spanish. This year he was missing. Word said he and his eighteen year old son got work permits to work construction near Miami, Florida. His wife and daughter and other son couldn’t come with him and are still in Zihua. He had a lot of fans at the Krystal who miss him. Some claimed to be friends of his on Facebook. They say Jose got fed up with his life and trying to keep his sons away from the gangs.
In private conversations with Jesus, the primo waiter at the Krystal currently accepting a quasi demotion from the new manager to work the bar and grill alongside the pool as well as hustle drinks at the palapas on the beach instead of breakfast and lunch at either of the restaurants, all related to a personal beef with Martin, Adelina’s widower, over seniority and who was captain and why a certain other server should lose hours because she was Martin’s sister’s ex sister in law, only Jesus only pretended it was a demotion when in fact he enjoyed hustling outdoors more, more time to spend with people and the tips were higher. Jesus heard me tell of witnessing the murder at the plaza and counseled that it might not be the act of a cartel but a pretender, an independent wannabe, a lone wolf punk trying to establish his own territory. He then told me and Roxanne a story of something that happened to him last year.
Jesus, it is known, owns a ranch of several acres in the hills north of town where he raises horses and cows. A true vaquero, he spends his days off riding and grazing. One day riding his range he was abducted at gunpoint by guys in a truck and driven several miles to a hut deeper into the mountains where he sat at a table where a man with a gun demanded he sign papers transferring ownership of his ranch.
“I tell him the numbers on the papers are wrong, it is not my property,” Jesus furtively explained. “I say I cannot sign. He is wrong. He says if I am wrong he will shoot me dead, and if he is wrong I can shoot him. I have no gun. I won’t give up my land. We go outside and he shoots some birds and says he’ll shoot me. I say I cannot sign. After one more night they let me go. Put me out on the road. I walk home,” he says enacting sneaky measures to avoid being seen. “The cartel is everywhere.”
Don’t like to bother him too much while he’s working but the rest of the day I asked about details of his ordeal without making myself a pest or stirring a bad memory. It’s not that I doubt him. He’s worked at the Krystal thirty years and carries himself as a paragon of integrity. If there are holes in his story it’s due to his concise brevity in light of telling it in English. What he wanted me to understand was that the underhand of organized crime has a powerful grip. “If they want something they will take it.”
I asked what can be done. He didn’t know. Even though his own resistance proved the answer in his case he stifled advocacy of action and counted his luck. “I don’t own a gun.” There’s a fatalistic attitude in Mexico, when your number’s up, it’s up.
If it’s not murder it’s drowning, or cancer, a car crash or aneurysm. Ariel, son of Anabel, lost a close friend from a motorcycle accident just last December and I feel compelled to express hope that his grief finds a way to enliven his own life in ways to honor his friend and to live up to ideas they shared as friends. Ariel is visibly sad. He is about 22 years old. He is handsome and sad. He works in the kitchen at the Krystal. He is literate and hip. He lives with his mother and family, which includes Yorvy, his six year old nephew and fan of the Chivas. I am way unqualified to offer life coaching to a young Mexican male in his situation but I’d advise him to go get an education, a PhD in psychology or literature, if I were to counsel him paternalistically, so all I can do is listen and reinforce his vague desires to get better.
All the time we’ve been visiting this place a generation has come of age here. There is no reason to discount their attitudes towards the tourists whose commerce fed and clothed their families and kept them in touch with a wider world. How much they respect us and what kind of examples we’ve set so far speaks well by the way we are treated by them and their elders, but I keep wondering deep down how much more petty abuse they’ll endure from the American government that they’ll reject our phony ideals about justice and human rights, stop protecting us and treat us as no longer welcome. Expendable.
I can’t tell if there’s revolution or insurrection just underneath the surface of society in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo, or if democracy and liberal commerce along with universal education and public health have raised the region’s standard of living and raises the bar of personal expectations. Zihua Rob sees American firearms interests exploiting holes in the border, American government bullying Mexican law enforcement troops to vacate Mexico’s northern border states to instead mass in the south and creating a vacuum of law enforcement almost everywhere else in the country and allowing outlaw cartels to impose their own rules of order. I have read stories of little towns and villages up in the hills less than half a day’s drive from Ixtapa and still in the same state of Guerrero where young boys age 11 or 12 train with rifles in the local militia to guard against cartel gangsters who live in the nearby mountains.
The 43 missing student teachers from a college in Ayotzinapa disappeared in northern Guerrero while taking a bus ride up to Mexico City, the nation’s capital, to participate in demonstrations, rallies and teach-ins commemorating the Tiateloco massacre of 1968, a kind of Kent State Tiananmen Square moment in Mexican history. The student teachers were met at a police checkpoint outside the town of Iguala, where they were shot at and taken into custody. The police militia then handed the students over to a local drug cartel who trucked them to a dump site outside the town of Cocula where those still alive were executed and all the bodies burned in a pit with wood, gasoline, tires, diesel and plastic more than fifteen hours and the ash scattered in the local San Juan river. The search for the 43 has unearthed other mass graves. A federal investigation has found collusion between the mayor of Iguala, dozens of police officers and a handful of named cartel goons but no accounting of the truth of what happened the night of September 26, 2014. Nobody mentions what ever happened to the school buses.
The War on Drugs is the crux. Well meaning people on both sides of the border would like to solve the traffic of heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl, cocaine, opiods and good old hashish and marijuana exported north to a craven market. Access to the simple pleasures of illicit highs has compounded a billion dollar narco trade into a billion dollar armament enterprise as interwoven as concertina barbed wire within the fabric of society, government, law enforcement, the military, local commerce and public health. Legalizing the whole kit is anathema to both sides. As Jesse Jackson once put it, it would take the distribution of poison out of the hands of the hoods on the streets and give it to the hands of the hoods in big corporations. Amnesty for cartel kings would be more impossible to negotiate than for FARC guerrillas in Colombia. Political and territorial feuds would settle on prosecutions and persecutions over assets and revenues. Those who favor allout crackdowns and assaults on the culprits would send in the helicopters to get the body counts overwith.
The status quo favors the spread of gangs in the underworld of all western countries, a truce of attrition in places like the United States and a maturing force within Central America where the USA deports most of its immigrant criminals. Look back a few years ago to that caravan of migrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua trekking through Mexico seeking asylum from gangster and cartel oppression along with the rest of the hemisphere’s refugees from oppression who think America really is safer and offers liberty, justice and freedom from that sort of harm.
Down at the beach it’s almost eleven, we’ve enjoyed another fine breakfast desayuno and it’s our day for masajes. From our palapa it’s a ten minute barefoot walk in the tides up the beach to the little casas. The greeters wave and entice us and we say we tenemos las citas a casa numero dos hoy, we have appointments at house number two now, and they relent as we walk up the watered path where our masajistas wave and greet us.
For three years in a row I have been a proprietary client of Isabel. My history as a massage client on the beach at Playa Palmar, along with Roxanne’s goes back to when the tents first appeared at this location maybe the second or third year we came to Ixtapa, when we were first hooked and the price was $200 MX pesos an hour — ten bucks. The little houses replaced the tents. The price remained the same. The uncanny quality of the massages remained sublime.
And again I remit that this is not a place to seek sex, this is not prostitution.
Over the years through repetition both Roxanne and I have adopted and been adopted by gifted masajistas. These three years I have been graced to fall into the hands of Isabel, tall, athletic, olive eyes and curly vanilla brown hair, about thirty years old. Two daughters and a son, all under 12. Speaks a little English. Pretty smile, fresh and alive. We see her sometimes a little after five with her backpack running along the shore after work. I call her Doctor because she has therapeutic skills.
She begins at my back. Shoulders. Ribs. Spine. Whatever it is back behind the pelvis, at the tailbone. Neck. Left arm, shoulder to fingers. Back. She pauses and I hear the click clacks, she is retrieving hot stones from the tray in the sun. She rubs the stones onto my back muscles and leaves two of them on my flesh and presses two others into each of my palms to hold in my hands. Right arm, shoulder to fingers, when she removes the stones. Hips. Buns. Thighs. Calves. Ankles. Feet. Heels. Soles. Toes.
These are all flirty activities, I am well aware. I wouldn’t be mindful of anything if I didn’t appreciate being massaged by an attractive young senorita. My eyes closed, the ocean beats, faint Spanish voices talk, the breeze ventilates through the windows and serenity surrenders my body to pampered bliss in the hands of Isabel.
In such comfort my mind unlocks from the scaffold that supports the paranoid fears I suppress always acting so cool. I accept that I am alive and healthy by some miracle and blessed with a charmed life. This is my golden age and I am lucky to have saved money and taken deferred compensation to be able to virtually drop out of the rat race and go underground like a rich man and blow off winter without having to go back to a daily job that no longer interests me. All my time is free time, and I am free to pay attention to fundamental questions of existence while I am still conscious enough to notice.
At the halfway mark Isabel says over and I roll over on my back. She begins with a facial mask and puts a tissue over my eyes. She massages my forehead, ears and scalp. One arm at a time. Each leg. There’s no place like home, Toto. There’s no way of telling if these massage casas are owned by a cartel. Somebody out of the picture bankrolls the operation. I wish the masajistas could say together they owned their own shops but I’ve heard them make references to having bosses who set prices, and I have never had the nerve to try to ask questions about who the bosses are. I don’t know enough Spanish to ask these questions or interpret the answers. It’s like the difficulty divining the details of Jesus’s kidnapping. Or finding out who sponsors the little kids who sell tiny toys from table to table at the restaurants, who used to sell Chiclets gum. My curiosity pushes against my concession to what is really none of my business. Here is where I can accept I cannot change what is and what will be in the dynamics of Mexican political socioeconomics. And if I can change it, what would I change it to be? Ethics tell me not to interfere in the affairs of not my country. Recall something like a Prime Directive to observe but not interfere. Then what of the Butterfly Effect and the Observer Effect and other cosmic concepts that link us all, are we all in this together? It’s a cop out to surrender any responsibility for change and yet the Canadians don’t seem to hesitate giving advice to Americans. I ponder what I can do to help. If I were an anonymous donor, what could my left hand give that my right hand doesn’t know?
If I were rich I could offer to finance Anabels’s family a new home, a restaurant of her own. Pay for Ariel to attend university. Offer to send Isabel to medical school.
Isabel wipes away my facial mask. She gives my scalp, neck and ears a last time around. The end is near. The session concludes with aromatherapy. Isabel spritzes the air above me and waves it over my face with her palms like wings. Finis, she whispers and it’s time to open my eyes and sit up. Usually I say something like, “Soy un hombre nuevo.”
The aromatherapy Isabel used had an unique attractive scent. I asked about it and she showed me a purple pump-mist bottle called Somni. Mandarin and lavender. Roxanne and I searched for it at all the farmacias. Isabel noticed how much I liked it and included an extra spritz or two during the session. It made me smile.
Almost every other day we visited the masajistas at eleven in the morning. Roxanne faithfully went to Kathy and I lay down for Isabel, and there I would surrender to my senses, especially my sense of touch, and there I would let myself be disassembled and rebuilt and come away feeling new.
This it turns out to be my default theme for why I come to the Krystal Ixtapa every year, my rites of renewal. It’s always in January after the old year has been done away with and analyzed. Roxanne has her birthday, a celebration of cumpleanos, the cycle of completing and beginning. We escape the frozen deadness of home to smell flowers on the outdoor breezes. Flowers bloom and trees are green in affirmation of life to look forward to when spring reaches across the tropical sky to grace Minnesota and life anew will sprout and all that jazz. I am not a make new year resolutions guy, just like I don’t give stuff up for Lent. I do rejoice in the return of daylight hours to the Northern Hemisphere. The sunsets from the beach at Ixtapa can be stunning night after night and each sunset a moment later and a few degrees north on the horizon than the last. Okay, sometimes there are clouds, which turns the twilight Mexican pink. On days when the big orange ball descends intact all the way into the sea you can see the green flash.
Those who have never seen the green flash may say there is no such thing, but those who have seen it will testify that it’s quick, it’s not called a beacon it’s a flash. I have seen it more than many times and attest it is real. Roxanne too. Mostly here in Ixtapa but once at Key West. The first time might have been San Diego.
As the day to go home gets closer I’m not so new. Ten, fifteen years ago I used to come to this place to rest and recover from my job, where I worked faithfully to save some money so I could live like this and I didn’t need to rest and recover any more. I reached my goal. I have nothing to go home to except home. The stress of being home. My own bed and kitchen. My desk. My stereo. My yard, my city besieged by snow and frostbite conditions. Lucky us, Roxanne scored a Black Friday special last Thanksgiving snacking up a super-cheap round trip flight from Minneapolis to Orlando, Florida the first weekend of March so we had future plans to stretch another week off winter visiting my brother Sean in Melbourne, which is east of Orlando near the Space Coast and Cocoa Beach, on the Atlantic, something to look forward to after Mexico before spring eventually grudgingly comes to our home town.
Even if I’m not all that especially fond of Florida. Or fond of the month of March.
I am siding with Emilio Zapata and his mustache and voting with my heart this Valentine’s Day to savor these days and nights in Mexico as if these are our glory days. Carly Simon — these are the good old days. If all things must pass then this too. A new man, or the same man renewed, rebooted, reset for another cycle back home, what does it take, I ask myself, to look ahead to being home when immersed in the moments of being home away from home.
A fellow guest at the Krystal, who happens to be American from Colorado, has his own boogie board and he offered to let me take it for a ride. I fix the velcro strap to the tether on my wrist and wade into the tides. The goal is to wade beyond the breakers to get in position to ride the curl. The waves are three or four feet high this day, not bad but not easy. I take it lazy and let the waves break and then catch safe rides to the sand. About seven years ago I rented a board from Rafael, took it out beyond the breakers for a few good rides and then pounced on a nice tight curl at its peak, thinking, whoa what a ride this could be. I leaned forward a little too soon, too eager, and the cusp of the wave drove my face down straight to the sand at the floor of the ocean and the onrushing thrust tossed me and the board over end like wet dominoes off a Mexican train. Kablooey. In knee high water I summersaulted to my knees facing the beach. The boogie board tugged at the tether on my wrist towards the sands. My head felt like a bell tower and the light of day sounded like a gong in my eyes. Roxanne ran to the water’s edge as I stood up. Rafael was there too and some more bathers. Yes, I’m okay I said standing up and dragging the board to dry land. I didn’t give Rafael the board back right away, my hour wasn’t up and after a rest under the palapa and assuring myself and Roxanne I had no apparent brain damage I took it back out for one more ride just to show the ocean there were no hard feelings. When I returned to work a few days later I still had black eyes and got to tell a story.
A palapa, as I may have said, is an umbrella of thatched palm leaves suspended by a wooden frame attached to a wooden post anchored in the sand. We like to hang our beach wraps and t-shirts and suspend our beach bag with a bungie from the supporting frame, the palapa’s rafters. One afternoon tussling to get my notebook out of the beach bag the supporting strut came loose, a narrow log about thirty inches long and two inches thick, hanging by a nail to the post. As I sort of wedgied it back into place with my hands a neighbor at the next palapa, one of the French Canadians who play beach volleyball every afternoon, said in English, “I am a carpenter. Get me a hammer and I will fix it. For forty eight dollars an hour.” He and his friends laughed.
Jesus happened to be standing by taking an order for Pink Eyes, a special strawberry margarita, and he observed, “Our maintenance guy doesn’t make that much a week.”
In all fairness, a Canadian dollar is only worth 70 cents USD.
The structural integrity of the palapa was in no way compromised. There were seven other struts nailed securely. It wasn’t like I was going to do chinups.
The sun inches higher overhead every day and it’s hot, in the 90s. It seems more bearable than the first week, but there was one rainy night, and the humidity seems to have gone down. Maybe it’s us getting used to it, adapting to global warming. When we walk down the beach towards the Pacifica resort in the afternoon there’s an absence of brown pelicans from the sea beyond the breakers where they used to flock and dive for fish in years past. They used to hover, five or eight at a time and suddenly plummet straight down into the sea. They would disappear and then emerge sitting on the surface just beyond the breakers, in a row, then fly up to cruise the surf, hover and dive again. I’m concerned for the gone pelicans. It’s not a good sign. It means there’s no fish.
Or just too much human activity for the pelicans to put up with at Playa Palmar. We have seen whales from the shore, distant at the wide mouth of the bay. Ones. Twos. They breach and submerge. Do they know humans are watching? Dolphins sometimes cruise across the bay. Never very close, they are all probably swayed away by jet skis and speedboats.
Roxanne and I like to swim in the ocean down by the Pacifica, as I have said, where the breakers are always the most calm to get in and out of the sea. Some years ago on the way out we were blindsided by a breaker unusually large and sudden for that day and we were knocked down, my hat came off and I lost my prescription sunglasses. Frantic, I stormed around in the tides searching but after a while Roxanne talked me into giving it up. A man in a straw hat named Vicente who worked for Pacifica selling time shares saw us from the resort and asked what we lost. I told him. Described the frames. He offered for me to write our room number at the Krystal hotel if they ever washed up. Ever since I take precautions to pocket and not wear my sunglasses when swimming in the ocean.
I bought a deep dark pair of wraparounds at a farmacia in town that were big enough to wear my regular prescription glasses underneath if I cared about seeing that much detail. I was losing interest in detailed visual acuity anyway. With the extra dark shades I could just about look straight at an eclipse of the sun and see the corona. When we walked down the beach past the Pacifica sometimes we would meet Vicente, and once he took out a pouch from his satchel to show me some sunglasses the lifeguard had fetched from the sea, but they were not mine.
One afternoon we returned to our room and there was a message at the desk. Vicente had come by and left a note to come down to the Pacifica, he might have something. It was too late that day to catch him, though we walked down there at twilight. Next day we went down about eleven and there he was pacing the beach. Salvavida, the skinny lifeguard in red trunks with the red swimming bouy was on hand as Vicente took out his pouch and unwrapped from folds of toilet paper my prescription sunglasses. Salvavida had found them while snorkeling among the rocks offshore where the jungle creek empties into the ocean. They had been in the sea ten days and were just fine. I came prepared with $20 apiece USD.
One time we returned to our palapa after moseying down the beach to find my sandals and our beach bag were gone (but not my t-shirt or Roxanne’s wrap from the struts in the palapa rafters). We reported the missing items to security and it was revealed that the new guy, Juan, had seen the items unattended at our palapa and had taken them to a staff room behind the kitchen for safekeeping. We all learned a lesson on trust that day. Faith, hope and trust.
Juan is now called Juan Toro and he is considered a senior waiter. We seek his tables for lunch, or breakfast on Anabel’s day off, Thursdays. How time has passed. This is his career. One day he will be like Jesus with thirty years on the team. My time will have passed and a next generation of Krystal guests will probably not include my kids. My legacy in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo will be based on my table manners and my influence upon the servants. That and being known as Roxanne’s husband.
One afternoon on our afternoon mosey I found a ring in the sand. It wasn’t in the territory of any particular hotel but between the Krystal and the Amara next door. The ring fit on my left ring finger but a little tight on my right. I looked around and there was nobody nearby. The beachcomber from Saskatchewan with the metal detector hadn’t found it yet. I showed Roxanne, who thought I’d picked up a pretty shell. I confided I was unsure whom I would entrust to turn the ring over to, who would find the true owner, and she said I may as well keep it. Until I find the true owner, I said. If you read this and you lost a ring on the sand at Playa Palmar, Ixtapa, contact me and give me a complete description and date of loss and I will return it to you. It is not a plain band of yellow gold, as I heard Yessica the emcee of the Kamp Krystal kids activities lost her wedding ring on the beach so I asked her what it looked like and she said it was a simple gold band, not what I found.
A game Roxanne and I play in Mexico is Slug Bug. It comes from a kid game from the 1960s, when you saw a VW Beetle you punched your friend in the shoulder and said Slug Bug. Modern Beetle sedans don’t count, so you don’t hear the game played much back home. But Mexico is home to scads of 60s and 70s Volkswagens still boogying along. So Roxanne and I play Slug Bug without the punch but add in the color of the Beetle en espanol. So you hear, slugbug azul, slugbug blanco.
Riding with two friends in a taxi into Zihua to dine at Daniel’s on the beach Roxanne and I start playing on the main boulevard. Roxanne calls the slubug but hesitates with the color maroon and settles for rojo. Rojo oscuro, I say. “Beano,” says the taxi driver, who gets what we’re playing. “El color es beano,” he repeats. He points to a maroon Chevy Blazer in traffic. Beano, I say and we’ve learned a new color. Our friend riding in the back seat with Roxanne says, “Sounds like that pill you take for gas.”
It was when our whole dinner party was seated at Daniel’s on the beach under the string of bare bulbs that it came to me. The name of the color is vino, as in wine, vino tinto. The taxi driver was saying vino and like a rube bumpkin I wasn’t listening to the way he pronounced the sound of V like B, using my anglo ear. Beano is vino. Couldn’t wait to tell Roxanne after dinner, in the taxi on the way home.
Usually a taxi ride is an opportunity to sit up front and engage in Spanish with the driver, sometimes in English if the driver prefers to practice his skills. I learn about his family, his upbringing, how his day or night is going so far, and seek to read his attitude, whether he sees times as good or expresses fatigue or anxiety. This night I was moody and tired and uninterested in conversation, and the young driver seemed preoccupied with traffic. The route out of Zihuatanejo, Downtown Mexico, always seemed more complicated than the way in, as if the driver had to loop halfway to Playa Ropa to connect to a backstreet that joined the main boulevard. It’s a quick tour of the city, the backyard of schools and shops with their garage doors pulled down for the night. It reminded me of backstreet Chicago after the Shakira concert, deserted but alive and looking like somebody could pop out from anywhere and there they are.
Our group in separate taxis met at Daniel’s for dinner that night to celebrate the entertainer Jimmmy Mamou’s 80th birthday. Again our friend Bob made reservations. From our long table on the beach we could see the stage deck across the front of the dining area of the restaurant proper. Jimmy wore a sharkskin suit, charcoal gray snap brim hat, lavender shirt and plum tie, shoes shined like a limousine. The place was packed, of course, Jimmy being an icon in these parts among the anglo baby boomers since moving from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. His voice was like Fats Domino and Ray Charles, two of my boyhood idols, and with his drum machine and keyboard he liked to play that bompa bompa rock and roll. He opened with Hello Josephine How Do You Do by the Fat Man and segued smoothly into Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire. His wife was there, a Latina of maybe fifty five, all dolled up. Ladies left their dinner tables to get up and dance. The man who sang happy birthday to all kinds of people played backup while the crowd sang happy birthday to Jimmy, and he joined us in the third person.
The garlic grilled red snapper was especially delicious. From my seat at the table I faced towards town and the main city plaza. It was the usual pandemonium. People everywhere, busier than the beach out front of the hotel Fontan and dressed in street clothes. Vendors selling bracelets and crafted picture frames. Taquito stands. A bandstand with no show that night but everybody milling around the famous outdoor basketball court, a game in progress. Past that the lights of the promenade to the pier past more shops and restaurants, and beyond that the neon lights of the carnival midway, the ferris wheel arching above the ebarcadero. Next to that the deep space of the harbor boats moored and beached for the night.
The serious young taxi driver dropped us at the Bay View Grande where we left off our friends and walked the rest of the way to the Krystal to save the extra charge the taxi would have cost for two destinations. This is fake Mexico, I said. Like Cancun. Ixtapa is fake for tourists Mexico. And Roxanne replied, this is Mexico the way they want us to see it. Zihuatanejo is real Mexico, I said. Yes, she replied, Mexican Mexico. Maybe Ixtapa is the way it wants to be, not just be seen.
On the boulevard a carriage approaches. It looks like a lit up float in a Disney night parade and it is pulled by a four wheel ATV lit up likewise. It pulses with Latino dance pop. The inhabitants of the float could be couples, could be a sisters night out or could be an extended family cruising up and down the boulevard. Not many years ago that ATV was a horse. It was a sad looking, drab, baggy skin horse pulling the carriage cruise of Ixtapa Boulevard. We never took the ride. Then one year the ATV replaced the horse pulling the float, though the horse used to stand in an open area at a corner of the local jungle, tied to a post. Then one year there was no more horse and the open area was a parking area for cars. I saw the guy driving the ATV dressed as Spiderman parked by the parking area and asked him, where’s your horse?
He’s sleeping, the guy replied.
On our walk from the Bay View I remembered to tell Roxanne about beano and vino. What made you think of it, she asked. When Bob ordered cabernet at Daniel’s.
Bob and his wife Rose have been our pals and confidantes since about our first year, when Roxanne and Rose bonded at the waiting line that used to form in the afternoon to reserve palapas for the next morning. They come from St Cloud, Minnesota, a city almost a hundred miles northwest of where we live. He heads a second generation family business, electrical contracting, and she was an HR supervisor for Wal Mart, now retired. Bob is not retired and sometimes works from the beach, though less every year. He says he likes it. Rose doesn’t miss work at all. They have four grown kids, all daughters, and a bunch of grandchildren older than ours. They are lovably generous and kind. Rose always brings something, this year little precious necklaces from JC Penney she found on sale for all seven of the masajistas at the casa she and Bob go to on the beach. They are contagiously social and often organize big group dinners, birthdays, the times we fished on Benny’s boats, the mariachi concert at Toscano’s the night of the murder, and excursions to Isla de Las Gatas.
It was Bob’s idea, instead of spending a morning on a boat reeling in tuna why not skip the fishing and go straight to the shore lunch. A core group of us, Bob, Rose, Roxy, maybe somebody we met that year and I would ride the bus into Zihuatanejo about nine in the morning, get off in the middle of el centro and walk a couple blocks to the main market, el mercado, to buy fresh shrimp, mahi mahi and huachinango, better known as red snapper. A lady named Rosa peels and veins big shrimp while we visit a couple of other fish stalls facing each other in the market where we choose a couple more kilos of pescado that they filet before our eyes. Everything gets bagged and iced. We settle up with cash pesos and Bob records the tab on his cell phone. Out the back way through the stalls of slick chickens we hail a couple of taxis and ride about ten blocks to embarcadero, where we buy round trip tickets to Las Gatas and board a fiberglass ponga vessel downs some stairs at the crowded lagoon marina because the main pier was under complete reconstruction. The ponga takes us across Zihuatanejo Bay in a straight line to Las Gatas, which is really not an island but the cape at the end of of a wild jungle peninsula at the edge of the bay.
Per a reservation phoned in by Bob we would hike from the boat landing around the tip of the cape to a long beach lined with cantinas, side by side, to Chez Arnoldo, where we would be greeted by Chez himslef, or so Bob thinks his name is, and he would take possession of our seafood and bring it back to his chef to prepare a lunch platter. We would be received at a table under an awning long enough to seat all our expected persons, plus a couple beach chaises in the sun. Not long and the others in our party arrive. We drink margaritas and buckets of Corona, move our plastic chairs to sit under the sun in the calm waters until lunch.
Lunch is a feast. Mahi mahi tacos. Butterfly shrimp. Mahi mahi filets. Red snapper filets. Coconut shrimp. Vera cruz sauce. Guacamole. Rice. Beans. Red sauce. Green sauce.
We linger a few more hours drinking beer and margaritas, Bob a glass of cabernet ambiente. We can walk the coral strewn beach, join the dense parade of visitors ambling the shore all the way to the point of the cape past at least a dozen cantinas offering shade, food and drink. We can swim in the shallow sandy water. Vendors trek the shore just like Playa Palmar and the jewelry guys go straight to the ladies. Somewhere there’s always music. Las Gatas has its own roving cowboy buskers. I like to people watch, especially the Mexicans and seeing their ways of leisure are no different from ours.
The last boat out leaves at 5, which seems a little early in the day. We’ve never stayed that late so I cannot say how strict they are or if they leave on time, but I can’t imagine being stranded overnight. We settle la cuenta between Bob and his buddy Chez, say thanks all around, pack up our belongings and head back to the landing to catch a water taxi back to Zihua, everybody making sure to have their correct color round trip tickets — there are blue taxis and yellow taxis. We go with the blue because they have more pongas and thus more frequent trips. We also make sure we have coins to tip the boys who hang around the landings helping us seniors up and down, in and out of the boats.
The ride back across the bay gives Bob a chance to talk to strangers. He’s the most gregarious of us and we ride with baby boomers our age who prefer to winter in Zihuatanejo rather than Ixtapa for the older residence hotels along Playa Madeira and Playa Ropa. Or they are younger middle aged and live in bigger cities of Mexico and like to come home to visit their families. If Bob doesn’t get people to open up, then maybe Roxanne will.
Gazing across the busy bay at the terraced town as the water taxi captain makes a beeline through the moored vessels and yachts just heading out to sea, all the homes and hotels in the hills that face the water look like haciendas, villas and Greek temples from a distance, nothing like the pyramid of dwellings where the poorer people live on the sides of the hills that faces the highway, away from the sea. Far beyond the city in the khaki mountains that hedge the coast I can see a black dot emanating a funnel of dark smoke high up into the sky. Bob noticed it too. Garbage fire, he says. Burning garbage. I nod and say nothing, and wonder if somebody out there is burning bodies.
A sinister foreboding kept me on guard the remainder of our stay. It was a little like defying terrorism. Behaving calm and cool and a shade naive it felt like I was ever on the lookout for something else to happen out of nowhere, dreading to witness a second murder and treating it like a lightning strike, once in a million. We watch our backs when touring Europe, observe our surroundings and so forth, as is advised everywhere you go where you are a stranger, even around home, it’s a normal way of mitigating danger in the modern world. In Ixtapa Zihuatanejo as in Florence or Paris there’s no guarantee lightning won’t strike twice. And everywhere we went we found ourselves welcomed and graced lavishly with hospitality.
Every night out at a restaurant we would eventually be approached at our table by the man in the white suit carrying bouquets of red, pink and yellow roses banded in threes with plastic wrapped stems. He will place one such trio on the table in front of me and I’ll look up at Pablo, who gives me a Groucho Marx look with his eyebrows. I’ll buy two reds and a pink, or two pinks and a red the first night I see him and remind him they are still fresh every next night for at least five nights before asking for three more. $50 MX pesos. Always pink and red, I have no use for white or yellow for some reason, we prune them a little with our nail cutter and put them in water in a bar glass in our room. When they fade, red before pink at least a day before, Neli the housekeeper uses the petals to put features on her bath towel origami sculpture.
It’s nice having flowers in our room. Anabel, Jose and her kids gave Roxanne an exotic tropical bouquet for her birthday when we celebrated lunch with them at a rather remote beachside cantina down by the airport called the King Fish at sandy Playa Larga. It was also Yorvy’s sixth birthday but we hadn’t found him his present yet, the Chivas jersey. Roxanne played with him in the King Fish swimming pool on the patio. I walked out to the shore to watch the crushing waves. The surf at Playa Larga is considered too dangerous to surf or swim, the breakers come in multiples and the rip tide will suck you to oblivion. We talk and drink Victoria, una cerveca mejor que Corona we agree and decide next year we’ll picnic further down the coast at someplace called Parra de Porto Si where they say there is a peaceful beach lagoon where we can drink cerveza by the cubetazo.
Technically we don’t need more flowers because of Anabel’s exotic bouquet but we refresh our roses from Cecilio, Pablo’s brother who services the restaurants of Zihuatanejo when we ate dinner at Casa Elvira. They look and dress enough alike to be twins, and for a while I thought they actually were the same guy. The next night at Martin’s Pablo is visibly bummed to learn I bought roses from his brother.
Victor sneaked up on me at the palapa one of our last days. No baritone. All of a sudden I looked up into a shadow and he’s there putting his wardrobe and his backpack down. From is backpack he pulls out not one but two Chivas jerseys in child sizes. He’s smiling like a chile. One is an 8 year old, the other a six. We choose the 8, it doesn’t look all that big and we’d hate for him to outgrow it in just one year. A hundred fifty, says Victor. No, I say, I’ll pay two hundred. I’d been carrying it around with me all week.
We gave the shirt to Anabel at breakfast the next day, when they so happened to be serving real chorizos at the buffet. Later in the afternoon Jesus brought us three Ojos Rosas strawberry daquiris for the price of two, compliments of Lorenzo the bartender who accidentally made an overly big batch.
Anabel says Yorvy se gusta la playera de Chivas, la camisita de futbol. The kid likes the shirt.
If we go home to the Krystal at night after dinner early enough, from our balcony we can watch the stage shows on Friday and Saturday nights. Friday there’s a Mexican buffet cena before the show, Saturday just drinks and a show. Recorded music on a stage at the big garden back yard in front of dozens of temporary tables, where young performers dance to songs as diverse as traditional Mexican in full costume to contemporary hip hop or middle range YMCA. A diva in waiting performs a dramatic rendering of lip synch pantomime of Whitney Houston singing Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You. Muchos aplausos. Otherwise there might be karaoke down at the pool cafe, where some of the sweetest voices come out of nowhere. And once a week there’s a duo lady and a guy on keyboard with drum machine singing ballads and dance songs down at that same pool cafe. We don’t chase the night life. There are extra hours bars and dance clubs all over, but we haven’t indulged in late night after parties in a long long time. We sometimes read ourselves to sleep, don’t even bother with the TV.
In the morning we awake before dawn and take our towels down to the palapas and pick one that isn’t already taken, lay our artifacts on the chaises, perhaps a paperback book not worth stealing, and go back up to our room and back to bed. For a little while. I get up at dawn. Madrugada. Make coffee. Log in to wi fi on our iPad. Read the world’s daily news.
There’s a novel — new — coronavirus — not a norovirus — inflicting sickness and death across China, emanating from a breakout in the southwestern city of Wuhan. The World Health Organization in Geneva has declared a health emergency and warned of a world pandemic. At first China tried too hide the outbreak and keep it contained to Wuhan, but as sickness raged through the province, Hubei, and spread across the country the news was impossible to suppress, even for the Chinese Communist Party. In Wuhan the authorities quickly built field hospitals to care for the increased sick and dying. The Chinese then alerted the WHO and offered alarming infection and mortality figures. The WHO alerted the world to prepare for its spread.
President Trump ordered air travel from China to the USA to stop. He said publicly he had no worries there would be an eventual outbreak in America. He characterized the virus as a flu that would pass with the winter season. He said he and his administration had it all under control, there might be fifteen cases and then it will all be gone. Miraculously.
He says now he was only trying to be cheerful and steer America away from panic, but it seemed to have the opposite effect on me. The public was being taught not to take it seriously and asked to trust its national leader that he had it all figured out — “up here” — how to manage a national response to the potential public health crisis. For some reason I had a feeling Trump didn’t know what he was talking about and he was hiding it like the Chinese tried to hide it too, and whatever Trump was saying was itself fake and propaganda meant to obscure the facts that something ugly was about to happen that would steal attention from his agenda to re-elect himself. He gave me the creepy feeling some bad shit was coming down the walls of Trump Tower.
Trump held massive campaign rallies where he defined the attention to the new coronavirus as a fake news media hoax fostered by the Democratic party out to get him.
Though the American Center for Disease Control tepidly urged preparedness for what might ensue if certain predictive models held true, health scientists and epidemiologists working from those forecast models were saying that it was not a matter of if this virus would sweep across America but when. No one is immune. And there is no cure.
I didn’t hear any conversation about the new virus among other hotel guests. I remember the year of the H1N1 flu when guests complained that the hotel took away the public ice chests from the areas around the elevators and made you go down to the kitchen with your ice bucket. I overheard one anglo lady in a butchy haircut at the pool bar complain to another woman that she might not come back next year, the place was too full of kids. She favored the old over-55 atmosphere like the gated community where she lived back home. Since all the kids then playing and splashing and eating at the time were brown kids, I wondered if she wouldn’t mind so much, or even notice, if the kids were white. Another time I heard the same lady whine that the pool stereo played too much of that Latin music. What I heard her say was that she wasn’t coming back.
To think of it, I know a lot of people who would not like it here. It’s too hot, about 90F every day and the UV level of the sun is ultra high. It’s boring, there’s nothing to do. (Except beach volleyball at 11 and 4, salsa dance lessons at 10:30, pool aerobics at noon, pool volleyball at one, bingo at 2, and Kamp Krystal for the kids all day.) It’s dangerous, you can get kidnapped and murdered. Some people don’t like fishing, and nobody goes every day. Spanish is a hard language. The town is old, run down and dumpy. (If swept and hosed squeaky clean.) There’s no archaeological or historical significance to any sites. (Nahuatl spokespersons will disagree, if they appear at all, and tourists are not encouraged to go into the Guerrero hills and mountains to invade Nahuatl privacy.) The art galleries don’t offer pieces to top what they show in Venice (Italy or California). There’s no water park (although the Krystal alberca has a water slide) but there is supposedly a zipline excursion into the foothills, but it is said it’s a rugged hike and the heat and humidity in the arid jungle away from the sea breezes not worth a few seconds whizzing downhill. There’s golf if only at 6 am. The staged song and dance shows can be kind of lame. And some people don’t read at the beach.
The Spanish, when they owned it didn’t value it enough to invest in much architecture. There was a port but not much of a market. Some woods produced timber, and ships were built to sail the Pacific. Playa Ropa got its name in the 1600s, a trading galleon coming from Asia got wrecked in a storm trying to find Zihuatanejo Bay and its cargo washed ashore on the beach including bales of fine clothes, silk dresses, garments meant for a fancy Spanish market. The locals found the clothes and thenceforth called it the beach of clothes, La Playa de la Ropa. Well into the early 1700s the people of Zihuatanejo were known as the fashion dressers of Mesoamerica. Zihuatanejo means town of women in Nahuatl, and there are bronze statues of symbolic nonspecific women in places like the main plaza and the pedestrian walk dedicated to the regional women of the state of Guerrero. A museum, cultural center and library are in the waterfront’s only last building left from the Spanish days, about all the Spanish left behind, almost as if they were glad to get chased out. The museum about says as much. The history since the Spanish ditched out in the 1800s is obscure too. There is no memorial monument on the beach to commemorate Shawshank Andy Dufresne’s boat like Forrest Gump’s bus stop bench in Savannah, Georgia.
At a luxurious hotel on the hill above Playa Ropa was filmed a Hollywood movie starring Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan from a story by Al Franken based on his wife’s alcoholic behavior and rehab, not a very funny happy sexy movie.
One day the last weekend before our last day I noticed the lobby music at the Krystal changed back to vintage black blues recordings again. Mantovani and Kostelanetz were gone. Wooden guitars and tinkly pianos were back. Who is this new manager?
On the beach at a card table under an umbrella the painter Jorge Perez works at miniature seascapes with his fingertips and one hair sable brush. He likes to locate at a quiet transition point between the Bay View and the strip of public beach next to the Pacifica. His works usually measure about 2 1/2 x 4 inches and although he faces the sea his pictures aren’t realistic views. He paints a vivid but lonely seashore of his memory and imagination. He usually hangs out from 11 to 2, but this day it’s after 3:30 and he’s still around. Some days he doesn’t show up at all. Lately he’s accepted commissions for 4 x 6s but says he won’t go any bigger. We say hello and he doesn’t seem to mind being watched. Says he’s been setting up at the other end, the far end of the beach towards the marina, but it’s too lonesome. For those towering condos there doesn’t seem to be much people. Whether he remembers us or not, he treats us as if he does. We bought three of his seascapes after one year he gave us a free sketchscape of flowers, grass and sea, sky with bird and clouds. Just his fingertips. Could have been pencils. We hung the three as a vertical triptych in our bathroom at home. The sketch is here on my desk.
And as if a final reckoning, I stopped to converse at the back of the patio at the hotel pool with the guy who rents boogie boards and snorkel gear, arranges excursions to Playa Linda, Las Gatas and so forth. He’s an ageless dark curly haired beach boy with thick framed glasses in a pink Polo shirt who holds court with his gear in his booth alongside the jewelry table next to the garden bar outside the lobby entrance to the restaurant. In our early years he arranged an excursion to Ixtapa Island, much like Las Gatas with livelier coral and prettier fish to see snorkeling. We’ve rented snorkel gear and boogie boards from him for our independent excursions. He refused to rent me a boogie board for our first visit down the coast to Playa Larga because he said the surfing down there was unsafe and he couldn’t let me do it. He was telling me this year that he needed hip replacement surgery this summer, the offseason. I noticed he was walking a little wobbly but didn’t want to pry. He’s been a recreational concierge all the twenty years we’ve been to the Krystal, and all these years I’ve called him Oscar. His name is Jorge.
Roxanne thinks she has spied the new manager. It’s at breakfast and she’s at a table towards the pool with a man who could be a husband, or could be another boss. She looks like she’s talking business. Gives me the once. She’s a sober serious lady with upright posture in a patterned but undertoned dress, not of the uniform variety. She’s a tanned, dark haired senora who didn’t smile, and this worries me. Nobody of the staff except her server goes near her. Look around, the occupancy looks close to a hundred percent, the guests are having a blast, the staffing is seamless, what could be wrong? The other managers didn’t get all chummy but they used to say hello, how’s it going. And smiled. A little. Maybe if I asked her about the vintage blues music in the lobby she would take it as criticism. I decided if we would ever meet it would be by chance.
Maybe next year, if she was still La Jefa.
At our final massage appointment I am mindful this sort of treatment won’t be happening again until I come back in 48 weeks. Of course professional spa services are available all over the place in my home town, many with far more posh facilities and massagists skilled and trained at the best massage academies and all which cost at least five times an hour more than casa numero dos on Ixtapa beach. It isn’t the price, it’s the tender care. In Isabel’s hands I am consoled and comforted. I am flexed and conditioned. I learn things my hands and fingers can do for places on Roxanne’s back. I know how to give good foot rubs to my grandkids. Isabel may not make me a new man but teaches me to think the most of the man I already am.
By the time the aromatherapy comes around and Isabel whispers finis I’ve been tortured enough with kindness and I’m ready to get up and walk free in the wind and the sand and the sea and savor this day as the apex of my existence. We pay up and tip with an extravagant bonus for the final session. In parting Kathy and Isabel present us with regalos, little gifts, colorful refrigerator magnets of Ixtapa and each of us our own pump spritz bottles of Somni, Plantas en Armonia, the aromatherapy fragrance I like so much. Outside the casa Isabel’s two daughters waited so Isabel could present them. El gusto es mio. We took photos. Nobody cried. Veramos ustedes proximo ano. Buen viaje. Gracias.
All that physical therapy too soon undone by a five hour plane flight to a subfreezing terrain.
Meanwhile the ritual of checking out is like a two day Irish good bye. It hardly seems polite to just one day disappear without a word, though that’s how it goes most of the time. Jesus as always deserves tribute. Anabel. Juan Toro. Toribio, the server who resembles Benito Juarez to the teeth on the $20 MX peso note. Neli the camarista if we catch her on the fly. Jorge whom I always called Oscar. Andre the security guard always spying around the pool keeping everyone safe. Lorenzo the front bartender. Not so much the lifeguard, who isn’t muy social. The bellmen say good bye when they assist us and our suitcases into the taxi to the airport.
We sit on our balcony at night listening to the music and looking off into the vast darkness of the sea and say to each other how worth it it is to do this but it’s time to go home. Grandma misses her grandkids, especially the little one. iPhone is an amazing means to keep in touch, but it isn’t touch. We sit on our balcony in the morning drinking coffee and Bailey’s reading the news and overlook the same sea so black the night before, now so defined by the sky and rock, and we concede it’s hard to relinquish this lifestyle, not that we act much differently at home though we cook and make out own bed. We don’t dream of moving down there permanently, if anyone asks. Four or five weeks is about all we can spare — okay, we could probably stretch it to six — away from home at a time. That’s as long as we’ve ever been to Europe, although that always entailed mobility. In Ixtapa we have a continuing identity. In a sense we know too much… Spanish. It’s not a double life and we are not double agents though we are ambassadors between worlds within the world so familiar and comfortable as our own and so foreign and almost dangerous. As our own.
Is it a Prime Directive not to interfere or more a matter of applying the Hippocratic Oath, to say, First, do no harm. Every year on a Saturday in mid February a charity in Zihuatanejo sponsors Sail Fest. A couple of dozen various sailing vessels and yachts file in line from Zihuatanejo harbor and sail west into Ixtapa Bay in a sailboat parade. The boats circle a second pass across the bay and then go back to Zihuatanejo, out of sight. People can buy tickets to ride in the parade and the money goes to the charity. They say the charity benefits the poor people of the district. Sail Fest is a multi day affair in Zihuatanejo and includes a bouncy house on the basketball plaza. As fundraisers go, I cannot attest to the veracity of the Sail Fest charity, but the event generates widespread participation among winter expatriates who prefer Zihuatanejo to Ixtapa. I fear I may fall for the hypocritical oath and overstate how much I care about the indigenous people of Zihuatanejo in proportion to what I do to help them out.
And hope I win the Powerball jackpot.
To the lady in the butchy haircut at the pool who objects to too much Latin music on the stereo, if I heard Hotel California again by the Eagles I thought, we’ll get through this, this too shall pass. Same with the Rock Around The Clock playlist around 3:30 or 4. Not my circus, not my monkey, as my sister Heather would say. Overall I rate the music programming at the Krystal pool as pretty good. Over the years I’ve found some good songs in Spanish I’d’ve never heard if not for the deejay at the Krystal pool, going back to “Amado Adios” by Inspector years ago, not to mention Shakira. With the increase of Mexican guests there’s a higher proportion of Latin music and salsa. The big song this year is called “Nunca Es Suficiente” recorded by Natalia Lafourcade con Los Angeles Azules. It’s a rousing anthem. The song turned up in one of the stage shows at night. The lady singer at the night time pool cafe included it in her set of songs. And it came out one night from what sounded like two senoritas at karaoke — not too bad.
Another cool song that found me this year is “Lamento Boliviano” by Ana Victoria.
Our ultima cena, last dinner, just the two of us, we chose to go to Martin’s for the enchiladas, I for the mole sauce. We met Martin’s wife, who happened to be visiting with him at a table in the corner of the awning area, a formidable and friendly lady, not shy. Since it was our last night he bought us a round of margaritas, which no surprise skimped on the tequila. Cecelia served us graciously as always. A group of couples a little younger than our age but still boomers came along to read the public menu. They looked around and at that moment we were the only occupied table besides a young Mexican couple off to the side. It was the group’s first night in town. They were from Edmonton. They seemed to entice an endorsement and we recommended the Mexican menu, I especially the mole sauce. They meandered away down the plaza. But another couple heard our conversation and took a table. From behind us around the contour of the plaza struck up the bold sound of a mariachi band. Cecilia lit up and excused herself to leave the patio to peek out towards the open plaza and shake her shoulders. We did not get up to look because we thought it was the same band as two weeks before and we could hear just fine. Cecelia came back swaying with a smile like cha-cha to served our food. The band did three numbers and applause you could hear from cantinas in the corridors. Then the band strolled through in their mariachi suits with their instruments and they were all women, not the same band at all, marching off to the setting of their next busking performance towards Deborah’s, and I folded a $20 MX peso note with Benito Juarez’s picture into the sombrero as the trumpeter passed by. When the mariachis were gone the group from Edmonton returned and took a table for six.
Along walks a tiny, frail young woman with a baby wrapped in her shawl. She carries a basket of cute little toys and is accompanied by a toddler with a toy in each hand she presents to Roxanne and me. We’ve bought enough toys and things in life we we don’t need and none of the ones they present interest me except the resemblance of the little girl to the young woman, and the familiarity of the young woman’s face. We’ve seen this young woman grow up. I remember you when you were about her age, I say in English, though I knew she didn’t understand, and I didn’t try Spanish because she probably spoke mostly Nahuatl. I handed her a fifty and said, No toys. There was something almost ghostly about the tiny woman, who could have been sixteen or twenty but almost looked forty five. She understood the word no, as in no thanks, no gracias, and kept moving to the next tables, the next cantina.
In the midst of our awkward good byes with Cecilia and Martin and Martin’s wife along came a tall young man in a white linen suit, rather handsome with combed black hair and suave eyebrows with an armful of roses. He lay a trio of white and yellow in my open palm and said, if this is your last night won’t you give something for me. I am Antonio, Pablo’s son. Cecilio’s nephew? Yes, me gusto, I see the resemblance. So where is he? Bad back, said the young man, who himself looked too tall to stoop over table after table, taller than his father and his uncle. I pulled out a fifty and gave the white and yellow bouquet to Cecilia.
We took one last mosey around the inner plaza. Not like the persons at the Krystal we don’t make the rounds of the restaurants and haunts saying farewell. We just happened to have dinner at Martin’s, and it was awkward because there isn’t much else to say except thank you, have a good year. We wouldn’t approach Deborah like that because she probably doesn’t care. Old Man Dom Toscano doesn’t know us from Adam. Sabrina, Danny Boy, Shorty, it would seem ridiculous to bother them on a work night just to share the bad news we’re going home. An exception is when we moseyed past the General’s we happened to catch Genaro and his wife Estrella at the fringe of the patio, he’s like an old friend we’d like to sit down and converse with at a moment when he isn’t bossing the restaurant or making the rounds jiving with his customers and she isn’t directing the cash. We get sincere abrazos, hugs. They say life is good. Kids are good. Maybe next year we can have dinner and a long talk.
We mosey through the souvenir kiosks and stalls where the murder took place. There’s another kiosk in place of the one of the victims, and theirs is off in the back row against the hurricane fence of the perennial vacant lot wrapped in black garbage bag plastic and rope. We are browsing for something unusual. I go by looking for a flag of Mexico. Just a desktop size flag on a stick. Or a fridge magnet. We have flags from all kinds of countries we visited, Switzerland, Greece, provinces like Brittany and Catalonia, and cites like Venice and Siena, but not Mexico. Why, I cannot say. Tricolor, green, white and red it’s like Italy only Mexico has a circular seal in the center featuring an eagle perched on a cactus eating a snake. None to be found. The proprietors aren’t especially extroverted this evening and I stroll around wishing for something to say, nothing to buy. It’s almost like a staring match and I keep blinking.
I have no trouble falling asleep our last night but before I do I listen to the surf breakers with the balcony door slid open a little to let the night air in with the AC off. There is no more entertainment this night. We are mostly packed. Organized. I think about whether I’ve learned any lessons. No need to be harsh lessons, they can be easy ones, just am I learning any… anything to carry forward into the new year… any insight to bring back home to inform my 2020 Vision…
Our flight wasn’t scheduled until 2:30 in the afternoon, and we didn’t get up to reserve a palapa, so we could sleep in until sunrise and while away the morning without stress. Still news of the coronavirus outbreak in China, where more believable data predicted dire contagion if it were to spread abroad. Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong reported outbreaks. There were pictures of Asians in surgical masks. It reminded me of SARS several years ago, and that never made it to America. Ebola never quite caught on in America. We’re the land of the sanitary, the home of germ free. We licked polio. And with every poo-poo of pandemic warnings by President Trump I kept reading the hubris between the lines and looking for signs it already leaped the Pacific Ocean. On our last walk of the beach and swim in the sea, on our way back passing the Bay View beach we crossed paths with two Asian race women and neither wore a mask, which I took to be a good sign. One day at a time.
We knew full well what lie ahead of us upon touchdown back in Minnesota, not the pre-spring thaw we always hope for but certain subzero cold minus wind chill. It’s like trying to time the stock market. After five weeks in tropical paradise nobody back home will feel all that sorry for us in our accidental suntans. Lucky for us we’ve got cheap seats to Florida in just over a week, so we can go on playing the icebox escape. Until eventually it’s time to stay home. Even so, we were looking forward to a family vacation of all nine of us at a cabin in the Rocky Mountains in late June. Roxanne had just booked the cabin through HomeAway on the web after getting confirmation of the dates from both our son and daughter via phone text. And I was thinking about visiting Portugal in September, maybe a little northwestern Spain, some Brittany.
Bob and Rose flew back on our same flight. All the rest of our anglo cohorts and accomplices at the beach had gone home by the weekend before and except under the palapas we didn’t see much of Bob and Rose the last few days. Rose knitting, tatting, embroidering and chatting the neighbors. Bob reading his iPad. Rose gives her knitting and needlework away. Her Spanish is lousy — she pronounces Las Gatas as Las Gallas — yet she gets a rapport going with the Mexican mamas under the palapas and gives their kids red licorice and mixed nuts. Bob won a prestigious national electrical contractors award and will be in effect inducted into their hall of fame this summer at a convention in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Sometimes we get together in the summer at their lake home on Mille Lacs. Or a dinner at a nice supper club halfway between St Cloud and Minneapolis. They’re good talkers and we’re good listeners. It’s gotten so Bob doesn’t realize he’s told me the same stories year after year, and I don’t care as long as he mixes in some new ones. What’s interesting, his stories stick to the same facts and he never changes his style. He gets along well with Canadians and Mexicans. I heard him telling how the other night they were having dinner at Toscano’s when an all woman mariachi band showed up at the plaza between the two fountains and played.
Did you ask them to play Tijuana Taxi, I asked and he said, Oh yeah, but they didn’t know it. Every mariachi band I ever see I ask if they know Tijuana Taxi, he said, and the very first one who knew, who played it was that one that last week. But not this all woman band. But they were very good.
Actually almost two weeks ago. Since the first few days afterwards we haven’t talked much about the murder, at least not in public. Rose is usually a source of good information, or at least a good lead, and she hadn’t heard anything reliable about the condition of the woman or her kids. Rose said she looked through the kiosks at that market, looking for some picture frames specifically for a friend at Mille Lacs, and she too saw the kiosk shunted to the back row wrapped in black. The days after the shooting Rose and Bob answered the rumors and the gossip to the satisfaction of all the curious people who came around who heard they were witnesses. Bob and Rose didn’t like to brag, but they like to talk. They keep the gossip honest. They’re good friends with Benny. After a few days talk died down and people stopped saying, hey did you hear there was a shooting the other night over by Ruben’s?
“Hey Kelly,” one of the regulars at the deep end of the pool, a lady from Michigan who keeps up with Roxanne, “Where you going for dinner tonight?” I don’t know yet, why, I answer. “Because wherever you’re going, we’re not going.” Ah, ha, ha.
Even so, among ourselves we stopped talking about it by our second excursion to Las Gatas, mainly because there was no new news. The sensational nature of the experience wore off overnight, and the existential significance can only be measured over time, and short of any follow up story we could only make of it a tragedy you might hear about or read about that actually happened in your face and there’s nothing you can do.
Bystanders. Espectadores. Testigos. Witnesses. Sometimes all you can do is stay out of the way and pay attention. Grieve. Feel sorrow. Don’t try to translate everything.
Although Bob and Rose checked out ahead of us at the Krystal we figured we’d say adios at the airport. I hung out at our room until at least I was sure that the flight coming down to get us from MSP was in the air, checking the web. Made sure Keli the camarista got her bonus tip for the room, along with our leftover rose petals. K is not a common letter in Spanish.
Drag our bags to the elevator. They run three elevator cars and there’s a light rush from the checkouts, but we’re patient, a car with room eventually comes down to our floor, number seven. Not the same luck for a little family on floor five, they’re have to wait. We’ve been known to walk down the stairs sometimes just because we can — just follow the gravity — but not with our suitcases. At floor PB, planta baja, main floor the vintage black blues is still the music of the lobby while we wait to check out at the desk. It sounds like the soundtrack to a Little Rascals movie.
The last goodbye is for Tocayo, the bellman with the same name as me (his has only one F) — that’s what tocayo means, namesake, name the same as yours. He’s a big guy with a face like Jay Leno who usually works the day shift at the front entrance, so I don’t run into him often when I’m mostly at the beach. Every time I see him though, he says Tocayo and I say Tocayo back and we nod or shake hands, pump fists. This day he guides our bags away from Roxanne and secures a taxi for us while I conclude the ritual of checkout. When I’m done and go to him to say goodbye and slip him a fifty, Tocayo asks for a favor. Some Canadian guy that morning tipped him four quarters, so could I make it into a twenty of Mexican money? No problem, I say. Take care. See you nex’ year, proximo ano.
I got in the taxi in the back with Roxanne and looked at the coins. One of the four had Queen Elizabeth on the face and two ruby red dots on the flip side, twenty five Canadian cents.
It’s a beautiful, sunny hot day and the driver wants me to keep the window closed for the air conditioning. The ride from the hotel boulevard lifts onto a freeway around the coastal mountain overlooking the rooftops of residential Ixtapa in the valley, a glimpse of what could almost be east El Cajon, California or suburban Albuquerque. Palm trees. Greenery. The interior mountains rise in bare khaki layers to the clear blue horizon, sky the color celeste. I look but see nothing burning on the foothills. The freeway clears the coastal mountain and settles into the valley of the older city and the busy boulevard through town. We play Slug Bug. Verde. Marron. No vino. Roxanne gets way ahead and I’m distracted at every stoplight how utterly shabby this town is. Rusted. Cracked. Faded. Crumbled. Raggedy. Rebar sticking up — which at least shows intention to improve, to put up another story on the flat. Someday. It’s beyond humble. If this is authentic then I say it’s organically sad. Nothing on this route ever seems to get better, even if there’s no evidence of getting worse. All the Podemos billboards twenty years later and the place looks like a sacked 1949 except for new cars. Hardware, tires, house paint, furniture, groceries, appliances, building materials, all the goods and services and comforts and conveniences you could ask for in any town, some apparently thriving and some getting by, all shabby and looking like one day closer to closing down forever. And yet swept clean. Shabby as this city could seem, there was no trash in the streets or the plazas. What would gentrification do to Zihuatanejo, I asked myself, envisioning the answer. I’m seeing with American eyes. It seems to be saving itself through an identity of shabby chic. Maybe it’s anticipating another boatload of accidental treasure. Maybe it dresses down to avoid unwanted attention.
Nothing glamorous about it. Just a nowhere place to pretend to drop out of the world but not really. Nunca es suficiente. We expect to come back next year. True, we could try Belize or Costa Rica. Nothing says we can’t. Ixtapa is a good deal for us. Nothing we looked at in Florida comes close. Hawaii is way out of the question. California isn’t south enough. I’m skeptical about the Caribbean. We need Ixtapa for our place to escape. It would be too bad if some force majeure stood in the way of our choice to sweat out January and February on the Mexican Pacific coast.
One thing else can be said, the streets, boulevards and freeway roads in this part of Mexico are excellent. I would almost drive there. Not sure I would drive a car from Minneapolis to Zihuatanejo next year if that be the only way we could get there to rent a room for a few weeks overlooking the sea. I just know it can be done. It could be an adventure. Let’s just say I’ve got more in common with John Hassler than Hunter S Thompson. And Michel would never allow us.
One night a couple years ago after a big group dinner at Bandidos in Zihua, instead of catching a taxi back to the Krystal right away, Roxanne and I skipped down the promenade to a place called La Sirena Gorda — yes, it means what you think and there are about a dozen paintings of mermaids adorning the place, most of them unashamedly fat — for a dish of their home made coconut ice cream, mine with Kahlua. Then we took a taxi to the Krystal. When we arrived, Rose was waiting in the lobby, worried and aggrieved. When we didn’t show up within a few minutes of her and Bob’s taxi she feared something bad happened to us. I said, I’m sorry mom, does this mean we’re grounded?
ZIH, the international airport, is small and efficient, about the size of a suburban strip mall. We ran across Bob and Rose at the food court eating BLTs. There’s one concourse and three gates. You board by walking a specific path between the lines across the tarmac and ascending stairs into the plane. Nobody at the airport, no passengers, porters or airline staff wore a mask. It seemed reassuring. No one seemed to be concerned that a virus half the world away had leaped across the Pacific to this nowhere vacation town. There was a flight boarding to Mexico City — no masks.
Mixing microbes in the concourse, browsing the duty free stuff, using the rest room, it all seemed so usual. Bob and I stood around talking about getting cash back rewards for using credit cards while waiting for them to call our flight. Roxanne and Rose talked grandma stuff, I guess. We did not sit near each other on the plane. We took off on time.
From the window seat I keep track of our ascent from the runway to the palm glades and over the ocean where the breakers stretch like white ribbons over a glossy blue sea. We loop back across Ixtapa Bay and over the residential valley, getting tiny as a map. Then over the tops of the Sierra Madres. The whole rest of the terrain below is rough. The mountains overlap with deep crevices and ravines, each peak and ridge fuzzy with khaki jungle. The elevations are spread widely and undulating so the depths and heights are hard to perceive. Here or there a line runs across a ridge or through a valley, a lonely road leading to a cul de sac of a village. Wider lines denote riverbeds not reflecting a lot of water this day. We fly over a lot of unpopulated ground but there are towns, though not large and not very many. There’s a big lake out there that looks like a nice place to live, roads and streets that go there. Most of what you see of Mexico from the air on this route looks serenely remote, plain and jungly. No crops. If clouds don’t eventually distract, there is eventually a border down there you won’t distinguish one side from the other somewhere over Texas, and otherwise the sun goes down on the other side of the plane, and between my journal and my iPod and Skull Candy earbuds, somehow Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa get past me.
Cruising lower I can see we’re hopelessly almost home, the landscape shiny white and silvery gray. I put on socks from my carry bag and put my arms in the sleeves of my jacket. Put my tray in locked position. Seat upright. Suburban street lights and parking lots glow in chilly lavender and ghoulish gold. Scarf. Beret. Gloves. Touchdown seemed jagged and brittle on this runway compared to the tropics. Or is it just me…
It doesn’t take long to feel a world removed. Reading accounts of the first outbreaks of the pandemic has since echoed back again and again like deja vu every day in real time and space, not some faraway place where it’s happening but in my home town and everywhere. I’m reading about an event occurring simultaneously around the world. An event that should reveal a cause to unify under the human condition. People keep saying, We’re all in this together. I really hope so.
This recitation about this year’s Mexican vacation started out a contrast of comparisons and a contemplation of compromises and devolved into a saga of sorrows. Home almost ninety days now and the weather has almost turned predictably pleasant, they say the last frost warnings of the season have passed and usually about now we’ve finally rid ourselves of beach sand and stopped missing the sea, we forget about the tropics and ease back into the seasonal blessings of the temperate zone. Nice try.
Having witnessed violence in Mexico the question put to me is do I still recommend Ixtapa as a winter destination despite the perceived danger and the travel warnings issued by the US State Department. Yes I do because I love the place and for all the reasons I describe. I warn you, though, don’t look for trouble. If you’re afraid to go there, don’t. I cannot guarantee your safety but I know if you are aware of your surroundings and take normal precautions you will be safe. Hotel security and general commerce tends to keep an eye on the tourists to protect us from trouble without being obvious. We trust the people of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo to allow us to winter vacation unmolested. When we left we had decided we would return next year, hence the long good bye.
We’re not so sure now. That’s eight months away. Usually we book a flight in July at a good price and then e-mail our reservation to the Krystal and practically forget about it until it starts getting cold in October. Usually we make plans. Now nobody makes plans. Roxanne canceled the cabin reservations for the Colorado Rockies in June. There will be no trip to Lisbon in September. There’s nowhere to go. We are stranded at home. There are no tickets to Zihua. The Krystal is closed.
We are lucky, Roxanne and I, to be locked down together in our American home. Our situation is exceptional. Although we are considered to be in a vulnerable age group, we’re able, in decent health and reasonably sane. We have resources to survive the pandemic by shelter in place. Our community is alive with helpers. Good grocery stores. Lifelines of family. Nice neighborhood. Whatever it takes to outlast covid-19 we have advantages.
From what I can tell, Zihuatanejo reports only ten cases, 582 in the whole state of Guerrero which includes big city Acapulco, with 71 deaths in the state. In Minnesota to date there are 13,435 confirmed cases and 672 attributed deaths. This could be comparing manzanas a naranjas. Months ago we too had 580 cases. We adopted a stay at home mentality to flatten the curve of infections to buy time for a lagging health care system to ramp up to meet a significant amount of cases at once. People continue to get sick. Eventually everyone is supposed to get sick, just not all at once. Our social distancing measures were never meant to cure or eradicate the virus. I hope Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa keep healthy through their lockdown emergency. I can’t imagine what it’s like with their airport closed, hotels shut down, the whole hospitality economy crashed. My young friend Ariel wrote in English “Too much government (Soldiers and Mexican security) in the friendly center” whatever that means. Time will tell if the virus multiplies throughout Mexico like it has clotted throughout the United States.
It’s too soon to say whether the Krystal will be open for business next January, or Sun Country or Delta will fly there. The way things are going between our two countries I wouldn’t be surprised if we will have to have sponsors to enter Mexico. (That could change in November.) It’s self-centered I know to yearn for an exotic winter vacation at a time when whole nations could be on the brink of collapse, cultures on the edge of famine and whole bunches of people face the greatest social disruption in recorded history. If history is any guide things will inevitably work out, a vaccine, cocktail drug remedies, and the world will open up again. When that happens there’s no guarantee Ixtapa will still be accessible or affordable.
I will keep in touch with my friend Ariel to try to get him to explain what’s going on down there. I worry about them.
I would like to hear the authorities arrested and charged the guy who murdered the souvenir vendor.
At home all I can do about it is wash my hands, wear my mask and stay out of the way.
May Day has come and gone. Cinco de Mayo too. And Mother’s Day. Apple blossom time. Lilacs not far behind. Tulips. Foliage again decks the scrawny trees. Roxanne mows the grass. Robins and cardinals fledge offspring. New life dazzles this once forlorn landscape and there may be no better place on earth to be quarantined right now. Spring and summer here in the temperate zone of North America can be profoundly superior to anywhere else on the planet, sometimes one forgets it takes a January journey to the tropics to appreciate it so much. Now more than ever. Thank you to Baidu to enable readers in China to find this blog. Usually I’ll be looking ahead to Le Tour de France while watching the Minnesota Twins defend the American League Central. A slew of concerts and shows and public events have been canceled or postponed so there’s nothing on the calendar except recycling days, the dentist checkups and choir concerts exxed off. The May photo on the 2020 Sierra Club calendar is of Navajo Arch, Arches National Park, Utah by Tom Till — you should see it, reminds me of oval grottos on the coast of the Isle of Capri. Roxanne is sprouting annuals indoors on our window seat, cosmos, zinneas and sunflowers. I force myself to work on my memoirs, the sequel to my first novel, or at least police up my work area. Don’t listen to the entire Shakira collection the first month but space it out for June and July. Daughter Michel is a nurse and especially conscientious to social distancing, so with the weather so pleasant we converge as a family in our camp chairs and their adirondack chairs and the patio chairs at least six feet apart in the yard and try hard to ignore the adorable child among us trying to play ball with the dog, and that’s just since yesterday. Our state governor Tim Balz-to-the Walz has executed emergency powers since March to deal with what the covid-19 SARS-Cov 2 coronavirus has done to our society, our government, our economy, our public health system, and has attempted to marshall the good will of our culture to shelter in place to sustain ourselves past a breaking point so we can heal in greater numbers than we die.
It’s sad to say things will feel like this for quite some time, however we all peek out of our masks and try to carry on. I have a front porch with a swing as my neighborhood watchpost. I have a lot of places I cannot go to think about. If I greet a passerby who makes eye contact from the sidewalk I may say hola, or aloha, or gruetzi, depending who you look like you might be. I’m not just another passive aggressive man in Minnesota giving you the hairy eyeball.
To remind me of Ixtapa there’s the 120 ml pump spritz bottle of SOMNI that Isabel gave me at mi masaje final. The label says Plantas en Armonia. Locion Spray Corporal. Con aceites esenciales de Melisa, Lavanda, Mandarina y Pasiflora. There’s a leafy green picture on the label captioned Melissa officinalis.
I spray it over my head into the air and let the droplets descend across my face. The scent of niceness makes me smile.