A lot of you have been drawn to my story (Ixtapa Zihuatanejo Guerrero, Mexico, 4/25/18) about this place on the Pacific coast of Mexico, so it seems right to offer an update.
Americans are scared to vacation here. The Trump administration’s state department stigma of Mexico as dangerous as Syria, along with Trump’s own vicious characterization of Mexicans, have alienated all but the most ardent Mexiphiles and turned the rest into Mexiphobes.
Not Roxanne and me. We’ve been coming here almost twenty years with no fear. We stay at the Krystal Hotel, where the hospitality is as gracious as the sky is blue. We use public transportation, bus or taxi. We walk the public streets and trails. We hang out at the beaches. We’re careful but not too self-conscious. It’s one thing to be aware of your surroundings but there’s no sense getting over-paranoid, there’s no reason to expect sinister encounters.
No one, of course, can guarantee your safety. The Krystal provides security that is comprehensive but not creepy. As much can be said about the other resorts and the atmosphere of the coastal community in general. Hospitality is so vital to the livelihood of the people here, they protect you, look out for you, and show you a good time. All in good faith. It would do them great dishonor for word to go around that harm came to innocent tourists in their midst.
No one pretends Mexico is innocent of criminal behavior and violence. Drug cartels finance an underworld of exploitation and corruption that reveals itself with gang murders. Political murders. Murders of vice. A visible police presence, discreet and chivalrous, patrols the public thoroughfares. There is a navy base at Zihuatanejo Bay. If you travel out of town you might encounter federal police checkpoints on the highways. On la playa you might see three guys in shades wearing beige cargo shorts, wide brimmed hats and white polo shirts that say TURISTA POLICIA on their backs, wearing sidearms, walking the beach. None of this should worry vacationers who don’t traffic with the underworld. Dangerous events hardly ever involve tourists except when the tourist is engaged in shady activity, and even so, reported incidents are quite rare.
Tourists are in greater danger of being swallowed by the surf at Playa Palmar than being roughed up on the streets of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo. There are several drownings per year involving tourists carelessly defying riptide warnings, getting knocked silly by the surf and getting sucked out of their depth into the sea. The hotel and beach lifeguards — the Salvavidas — rescue scores more. It’s part of the drama of la playa at the theater of the beach. Sometimes it’s not safe to swim in the ocean. Or boogie board surf.
But people do it anyway.
There’s pleasure in swimming in the sea.
As I’ve said, we go there every year from around mid-January to mid-February to escape winter in Minnesota. The weather in Ixtapa is always consistently predictable: sunny and hot. We more or less establish residence at the Krystal in an upper floor room facing the ocean towards the southeast, overlooking the pool, the garden and the restaurant they call Las Velas, which has a palm thatch roof. There are palm trees everywhere on the hotel grounds and beyond. Every room has a balcony with a view. (There is also a nice view to the Amara condo high rise next door too if you want to look.) From our balcony we can watch the evening shows and fiestas put on stage in the hotel garden at night, or listen to karaoke down by the pool bar on Tuesdays. It’s a modest room with a table, chairs, dresser and king size bed, desk, night tables, TV and good lighting. The bathroom is up to date and the water pressure very good, hot water almost always available on demand. Adequate closet with a safe. There’s an iron and a hair dryer. And coffee pot. It’s all we need, a nice place to retreat.
Most of our time is spent out and about. We get a palm thatched palapa and a couple of chaises on the beach below the hotel and read. We swim in the pool. We walk the beach. Talk with friends we’ve known for years, mutual tourists, local vendors, new people we meet. Dip in the ocean where the surf isn’t so rough. Get a massage from one of the beach salons. Recline and repeat.
An all-inclusive itinerary is offered at the Krystal but we choose to lodge, eat and drink a la cart. Both restaurants at the hotel are very good and we breakfast and lunch there frequently. The service is exquisite. Good food is just about everywhere, so we dine off-campus a lot, frequently in company with friends. For a nominal fare a taxi to Zihuatanejo can get you to any of an array of welcoming places with great food, some elegant like Il Mare high on the hill overlooking the bay and Coconuts in the middle of el centro, some casual like Lety’s place near the embarcadero and Sirena Gorda and Casa Elvira on the boardwalk, and others a combination of both like La Perla and Daniel’s on the beach, or Bandidos near the old Spanish church.
Within walking distance from the Krystal are at least two dozen good dining options in Ixtapa, again ranging from fine dining at the yacht marina, Mediterranean cuisine with a French singer at Soleiado on the boulevard, or the trappings of Morocco at Bogart’s next door to the Krystal. Casual places include Ruben’s specializing in hamburgers with New Zealand cheese, the seafood platter at Calabozo, Italian at Toscano’s, enchiladas at Martin’s and ribs at Tequila y Sal. Most places blend the fine with the casual. El Tiburen at the Palace Hotel serves huachinango — red snapper — with Vera Cruz sauce. The General’s sports bar serves everything from steak to fajitas. El Cameron Azul — the Blue Shrimp — offers a shrimp flambe created by renown chef Lalo, who passed away last year. Deborah’s place also offers a version of Lalo’s Shrimp expertly prepared at your table by souchef Ayani, though Deborah also offers an Alfredo sauce so rich and delicious you will crave it when you get home.
Roxanne asked Deborah for the Alfredo recipe. She demurred politely, saying, “I cook it to order.” A ginger haired Canadian expat who resembles the singer-songwriter Neko Case, she is likely the canniest restaurateur in town. As a very young woman she apprenticed for Ixtapa’s legendary chef Mama Norma and kept the doors open after the iconic Mama passed away. The young souchef Ayani could have a bright future in the culinary business if she were to follow such a mentor. Deborah is exacting with her staff, most comfortable in her kitchen and can sometimes seem brusque in public with her guests, though she’s never without charm. As if to soften her decline to give Roxanne the sauce recipe she added, “I think about food the way men think about sex.”
Ixtapa’s most popular host is Genaro Salinas, known as the General. Not a chef but an entertainer, he’s a logistics maestro, an orchestrator, an impresario of hospitality as pageantry and hustle. His staff are the most enthusiastic and energetic and among the most polite and punctual servers in the trade. The General paid his dues and knows how to run an operation so busy at times the activity all around looks and feels like chaos — it’s not a place for a quiet cozy meal — when in fact it’s all a mix of quick service, abundant clientele of the lively persuasion, a quality kitchen and bar, and a festive atmosphere boosted by about a dozen video screens all over the interior building, where every inch of ceiling and pillar and wall is bedecked with sports teams logos, pennants, sweaters, posters, pictures and paraphernalia from the NHL, NFL, NBA, FIFA, CFL, the Big Ten and other American college conferences, and even a couple of high school hockey teams from British Columbia. Every night is hockey night so any and all NHL televised games are featured on most if not all the TV screens, with a few devoted to college or NBA hoops, or soccer, and the NFL on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. Super Bowl is a big deal, when they sell reserved seats, put extra tables as far into the plaza as they can, offer bar food specials, put up extra big screens and sell commemorative t-shirts.
The General is a local guy who worked across the US in his youth, where he developed a fondness for cheddar cheese and the Green Bay Packers. Back home he settled down with wife and kids and dove into the hospitality trade as a guide and restaurant manager in Zihuatanejo and eventually Ixtapa, where he earned his moniker. He saved his dinero, envisioned his plan, found a couple of Canadian partners and opened his namesake bar and restaurant in the vacated site of a failed tiki bar. It was a smash success from the get go. People come just to watch Genaro boss the place and take a moment to greet his guests. He’s fun and funny. Likes to pepper slow nights like the NHL all star break with music videos, karaoke or setting up a dance floor on the patio next door to stage local acts like one-man band Jimi Mamou playing old time rock and roll.
One morning we ran into Genaro picking produce at the Bodega market and we asked him about some of the new cafes we’ve seen setting up around the Ixtapa plaza which have abundant empty tables. “Yeah, a lot of these new guys,” he said, “think they can put up a kitchen and set up some tables and the tourists are just going to fly in, but they have a hard time serving just one customer the right way and they won’t come back.”
So true. Roxanne and I can think of a few places we would avoid if they were still in business. Yet we like to be on the lookout for places to try. Recommendations from fellow travelers help. That’s how we found Bandidos. I avoided the place because the name of the place sounded cheezy and expected as much, but our frequent accomplice and friend Bob insisted it was a classy place. We discovered their signature dish known on the menu as Molcajete, a kind of gumbo stew named for the vessel in which it’s prepared and served, a heavy mortar pot carved of lava rock, served right there at your table. Their seafood is excellent as well. And they feature a splendid lounge singer named Michele who knows all the standards and solicits requests. She likes to be asked obscure songs she knows.
Itinerant singers and musicians play in the plazas, malls and streets for hat money. At a semi-derelict fountain plaza between Ruben’s, Toscano’s and the Blue Shrimp they take turns playing sets of three or four songs and then go around the outdoor tables of all three restaurants collecting pesos, or preferably dollar bills. Nobody is obliged to kick in. Most restaurants have open air seating and there’s unspoken permission for song buskers (and little kids selling toys) to approach their diners as long as they are polite and respect when people say no.
Several cafes and restaurants employ their own in-house musicians like Bandidos with Michele. There seems to be no end to the talent among the locals.
Like there’s no end to the quality of the seafood. Fresh mahi mahi tops the menu everywhere. At the Blue Shrimp — El Camaron Azul — the huachinango a ajo, whole red snapper grilled with garlic, simple and elegante, is to fish what is a butter knife steak at Murray’s in Minneapolis. They will serve it fileted if you ask, but I recommend the whole fish, the flavor is richer and it’s a useful skill to know how to comb a fish skeleton.
Shrimp is fresh and plentiful, served every which way. Coconut shrimp is more than a fad. And the size of the shrimp are not shrimpy. What inland menus where I live call scampi are the normal size of shrimp at Ixtapa, and what we call jumbo shrimp at home they just call shrimps. On at least ten percent of all the menus of the cantinas and cafes and restaurants in the region, a district named for Jose Azueta that includes Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, like a county, all along the Pacific coast between Acapulco and Manzanillo, you will find the English translations on the menus will feature shrimps, plural. It would seem that a culture which uses a singular word for clothes — ropa — would grasp that plural for shrimp is shrimp, and by and large they do.
One place that gets it is the Blue Shrimp at the north back end of the plaza — Camaron Azul. In a region where seafood reigns — rains — their kitchen features the widest varieties of crustacean recipes, including lobster. This is the patio where young Lalo invented his three cheese shrimp flambe, made of worcestershire sauce (which Mexicans call english sauce) and soy sauce, white wine, onion, mushrooms, brandy, garlic and shrimp, known on the menu as Lalo’s Shrimp, or Camarones de Lalo (yes, shrimp in Spanish is a plural noun, camarones, with an s.) It was like watching a magic act when Lalo wokked and flamed it up before you at your table. Lalo passed away last year from kidney failure complicated by diabetes. They say Lalo was a chef genius, and at the Blue Shrimp they keep his memory alive with his namesake shrimp flambe. Over rice it is so rich and delicious you will order bread to sop up the gravy. Then you’ll kick back in your chair and go wow.
You’ll walk back to your hotel or take a taxi to your abode thinking nobody treats you nicer or feeds you better than the people of Zihuatanejo Ixtapa.
This brings me back to the politics behind the US state department travel advisory scaring Americans away from vacationing in Mexico. President Donald Trump, you may have observed, likes to taunt and scorn Mexico and Mexicans. The origin of his grudge, I do not know. It must be deep seated. Deeply rooted. An unforgiven trauma. Maybe a Mexican nanny slapped him as a child. Maybe he’s sore about protectionist Mexican real estate laws keeping him out of the Mexican resort and condo business. Cemex, the Mexican concrete cement company, among the world’s premier building supplies companies, might have slighted him somewhere along the way, refused him sweetheart deals, maybe even sued him for nonpayment. Whatever the core source of Trump’s pathological antipathy to all things Mexican, whether ego driven, economical or schizosociopolitical, he has directed a proportion of his power to undermine, embarrass, criminalize, dehumanize, demonize, destabilize and demoralize a whole people with a big say in the future of the western hemisphere and the planet.
When I say power, I don’t just mean his governmental position, which he exercises like a fuhrer. I mean his commanding media presence, his near godlike ever-presence, his obsessive projection into mass media and the undeniable appetite of the public for his quips, taunts, proclamations and shenanigans, like a fuhrer.
He says he has the power to shut down the border of Mexico, and Canada too if he feels like it. He says he’s got the power to stop all traffic and all trade between the US and Mexico just to stifle migration into the United States. He says he has the power to create tariffs on Mexican goods as punishment for allowing migrants to try to enter the US via Mexico. He says he has the power to declare national emergencies to fund the building of a wall along the entire border with Mexico to keep migrants from entering the US. He has all that power, but no power to allocate funds for soap and toothbrushes for little kids in the concentration camps where they are being processed after being caught migrating into the US. He acknowledges a humanitarian crisis at the border, and it is, a crisis of his own making. Instead of responding with humanitarian compassion he treats them worse than the conditions they endured and escaped, by which he plans to deter future migrants, the message being don’t come to the United States, they will cage you, take away your kids and let you rot and stink with the lights on all night long.
This is a classic term paper example of the theme they used to call when I was in high school Man’s Inhumanity to Man.
But if we don’t stop them from coming here they’ll just keep coming!
In the face of diaspora the reaction is to create lawbreakers by criminalizing residency.
The fuhrer says he has the power to order rounding up and deporting illegal aliens — his term, not mine. And he will do that unless the US Congress legislates new immigration laws he will sign, and that won’t happen. His goal is to eradicate immigration and kick out immigrants. This will be a campaign focus of his for his reelection.
Among the lives at stake are the ones they call the Dreamers, the DACA migrants, people brought into the US illegally as children who have nonetheless grown up in American society and know no other country, who are now grown up taxpaying adults with degrees, careers, lives and families and now face mass deportation, mostly to Mexico, because they were brought to the US when they were little kids. I can see them being bused in orange school buses to border crossings like Matamoros, Juarez, Las Cruces and Tiajuana, the Mexican authorities checking out the paperwork and looking over all the deportees one by one and saying to ICE, Lo siento, these people all appear to be yours. We’re not taking them back.
Okay, break out the cages again.
Actually, Mexico would likely love to have them back, especially if they speak Spanish. The resentment such reverse diaspora would create would result in terrible damage to the osmotic alliance that exists in reality between Mexico and the US, and that seems to be the fuhrer’s design.
I take it personally because it’s like he’s deliberately trying to ruin my winter vacation.
Last year it was the tale of the caravan of invaders of not so nice people (he didn’t even equivocate there were decent people on both sides in the caravan) coming directly towards the heartland of the United States to harm us. He characterized these migrants as killers. Invaders. Marching through Mexico from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Mean dudes. Predators. Trump wanted them met at the border with his Wall. His Wall was supposed to be a big U-turn for migrants — don’t even dream. That’s when he came up with the idea he could create emergencies so he can invoke the Emergency Powers Act to reappropriate money to build a Wall but not of course to humanely shelter migrants who somehow got through the existing dragnet at the border and surrendered or got caught seeking asylum in US territory.
Because the land route of migration from Central America goes through Mexico, Trump ordered tariffs and threatened an entire border shutdown to castigate Mexico for not doing enough to prevent migrants from invading the US. Instead of a blue ribbon commission to look at the conditions causing people to uproot their lives and travel thousands of miles to the Land of Milk and Honey, the Pastures of Plenty, Trump proclaims he will withhold foreign aid from Central America unless they stop their own emigration. That’s just what these communities need right now, captive repression.
Mexico and Mexicans for their part have been tolerant and easy going in response to the provocations. Trump tried to badger their last President Nieto into agreeing to pay for the Wall and Nieto would have none of it. Mexico’s new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, a white haired genial guy around my age who seems to think things through rather than react fast, a methodical but not radical reformer and anti-corruption populist, has parlayed civil restraint and modest self-confidence thus far to absorb the hyperbolic insults and negotiate for the future, the long haul. AMLO was born in the Mexican state of Tobasco, home of the spicy sauce, but unlike the fiery salsa he keeps a cool tongue and does not let relations with the US distract him from governance at home.
Venezuela and Cuba can rant about their miseries caused by America, but Mexico has good cause to speak kindly about our relationships and deserves far better than the low and vile reputation characterized by President Trump. For this I wonder at the grace and hospitality we receive from the Mexicans. If the president called my home town the equivalent of a shithole, I would certainly resent it and anyone who shared his opinions — oh that’s right, he already did, citing the large Somali migrant population as well as my city’s status as a sanctuary city. The Mexicans for the most part express no recrimination or resentment to us for the seeming official designation of their country and citizens as Bad News.
They are aware and don’t need to be reminded of the reputations of drug lords and the legacies of official corruption — perceptions they would prefer to live down and amend through continuous social and political progress. It does them no good to be known as a crime infested, radically violent zone of terror. This place is not lawless. In fact Ixtapa Zihuatanejo is sometimes described as too boring and tame for tourists who seek thrills and decadent party life because the tourists by and large behave themselves and don’t dwell on seeking vice or raising hell.
Because Zihuatanejo Ixtapa lacks a Spring Break intensity we rather like the nuanced atmosphere of being pleasantly Under the Top. It’s like the predictability of the weather January through March, the chance you will have an unspoiled vacation is almost certain if you care enough to go there. My feelings are mixed about the decline of fellow travelers from the US. There’s a more for me delight about it. Fewer gringos from the States reduces the incidents of Ugly Americanos acting rudely, sometimes out of ignorance but sometimes out of cold malice, casting aspersions on us all in fresh, scathing ways Donald Trump only seems far away and abstract. The decline in numbers of Americanos has not really depreciated the total occupancy rate of tourists. Mainly the drop in tourists from the US is largely being made up by Mexicans. The emerging, rising Mexican middle class likes to vacation and they come from cities like Guadalajara, Zamora and Mexico City with their kids and sometimes their parents for a week at the beach, or sometimes a long weekend. It’s like people where I live go up north to the lake. More Mexicans on vacation means more Latino music and less redundant classic rock or pop country, though some of the decline of American gringo tourists is also made up for by more and more gringo Canadians, which accounts for a mishmash of tastes and the popularity of ice hockey on the video screens in this tropical paradise. Compounding the exotic atmosphere, not only are Canadians replacing Americans among the guest population, more and more of them hail from Quebec Province, where they mostly speak French.
So this makes for a quaintly thriving international village in its peak time, the dead of North American winter. Three winters ago we rode with a tour guide to the town of Petatlan, not far from Zihua, and I noticed he carried with him a French language textbook. He explained to me he was meeting more French speakers and wanted to keep up. It appears he saw a trend. I did not foresee that my college French classes would count at the beach in Ixtapa.
As long as we are welcomed we will abide at Ixtapa Zihuatanejo at least a month of our homeland’s harsh winter. It is a place where we trust to good fortune. Farm to table cuisine — ocean to table. Relaxation on the beach. Latin music. A place to recharge and reenergize body and soul at the beginning of each new year. To commune with the soul of the ocean. A place where we can be sincere, be ourselves away from home and feel so much at home and not at all alien. Where I can observe the Southern Cross constellation, never visible at my home latitude. Someplace rather obscure and unglamorous in a shabby chic romantic sort of way. Not a Potemkin village but a real and vital community. It’s nice to be their guests and to be confided the freedom to hang out unmolested in an exotic land.
Oscar Romero is the GM of the Krystal Hotel. About 260 people work there, with 255 rooms. His goal is to raise it to a 5 star hotel, which should make me worry he will price me out of the market except I know what he really means. His business model is based on exemplary service.
When asked about public safety he refers to the American city Chicago as far more dangerous than Zihuatanejo Ixtapa, and yet people go there for edification and avoid trouble. Senor Romero is an educated and worldly man aware that his hotel brand is on the line every single day and he likes to entertain long time guests at a cocktail party just past sunset to introduce his management team and solicit feedback from the guests. Since I rather love the place I give praise where praise is due, which I hope balances off the whiners and complainers who like to confront managers and get beefs off their chests. Bless their hearts.
Speaking of hearts, I heard word somebody staying at the Bayview Grand condo died of a heart attack on the beach the other day, and I asked Senor Romero if the Krystal had a portable AED defibrillator on its premises. Yes, he told me, saying the Krystal was a primary hot spot for emergency response within a consortium of safety efforts among the four adjoining condos and hotels, the whole beach if needed, a network linked by radio. The Krystal had its own AED ready to share if called upon, he said, and introduced me to Maricio of the night watch of bellman security, one of the trained AED operators always on duty.
Oscar Romero knows the proportion of hospitality that goes on behind the scenes. I am always amazed at having my bed remade every day and they don’t even use fitted sheets. Even more, the housekeepers — camaristas — invariably female — frequently leave behind an origami figure of a bird, puppy, cat or a monkey fashioned like sculpture out of a bath towel detailed with flower petals. This year her name was Vianay. For these things and sweeping up the beach sand, of course we tip them.
Their livelihood relies on serving guests, and when the service is gracious we tip generously. We are aware of the daily wage of these servants and it’s appallingly low by our American standards. Even when we might factor the difference in the national economies and relative costs of living, we come out looking like wealthy aristocrats — and there are others much richer than we are, witness the yachts and luxury condos. At home in Minneapolis we are a modest middle class couple of empty nest grandparents, retired from our middle-level careers and getting along on Social Security and what we saved in our working years to be able to live comfortably enough to travel and go on winter vacation as long as we are physically and mentally able. In Zihuatanejo Ixtapa we might as well be zillionaires.
The contrast — disparity — stuns us sometimes. We realize, of course, we have nothing to feel ashamed of or to feel guilty about because we are American middle class — what the French called the bourgeoisie — a rather enviable status on this planet based on merit and luck but rarely predestined the way it is with the filthy rich. We see ourselves less as entitled, privileged and exceptional as we see us as competent, moral, paranoid and educated enough to get by. We see ourselves invisible, anonymous and relatively autonomous, and at our stage of life rather lucky things seem to have turned out fortunate so far, a charmed life compared to any metric. We have a lot going for us, but we don’t have any money — or at least we don’t think we do.
Until we live in Mexico for a month or so and take a moment to observe what we’re doing here. It’s been about twenty years, and in that time we have formed recurring relationships with the servants. Maybe we have crossed a taboo line somewhere by getting to know them, learn their histories, meet their families, visit their homes, take them out for dinner — cena — at a restaurant on their nights off. If we crossed a line we never really saw the boundaries of the frontiers when we crossed over. It was somewhere in the midst of being nice, and sincere. Both ways. And now we really can’t cross back. Once we have left the friendly confines of the Hotel Zone you end up returning to the hotel and the beach with a deeper connection with the larger community. You realize the people at the hotel serving us actually live here all year long. They grew up here. Their kids grow up here. This is their home town. This is not their hobby. These are not summer camp jobs and then they go back to school to get their doctorates. This is everyday life, and over time if we have been granted privy to see what it’s like the the experience should mean something, and we should treasure that meaning, the understanding, and feel charmed for knowing.
There is no way we can go home without knowing our material luxury seems obscene compared to the simple domestic lives of the families who live on the eastern side of the mountain above Zihuatanejo. These people are poor, decked and zig-zagged on top of one another, humble cement and cinderblock plots stacked up the hillside just one earthquake, mudslide or hurricane away from disaster, a neighborhood clinging to a cliff over the commercial boulevard of the city, a hive of adobe homesteaders all wired into the electric power grid strung like chicken wire through the scrub trees, mesquite and occasional banana trees on this side of the mountain that does not face the ocean. Here our friends cook us fresh huachinango a ajo on the wood fire at their dirt floor patio and serve us first because we are guests.
None of our Mexican friends has ever said to me, “Blanco…”
I have white hair, what hair I have. Mexicans seem to revere white haired elders, although they don’t know what to make of baldness. I am a white caucasian gringo. There is a mystical legend of a White Buffalo, known as Bufalo Blanco, and somewhat because of my name, in jest, and they don’t call me Senor Kelly, somebody nicknamed me Bufalo Blanco, or just Blanco.
None of our Mexican friends has ever said to me, “Blanco, if I show up in Minneapolis next month can you help me get a job and a place to crash?”
El General did a stint working in the USA, and whether he was legal or not I really don’t care. A massage giver — masajista — named Anna who Roxanne likes tells us she used to live in San Diego until she got caught in a roundup eight or so years ago. She wouldn’t mind going back if she could. She has a tween-age daughter with her who was born there and is a US citizen. A young guy named Marco who serves breakfasts at Deborah’s was born in Arizona but came back to Zihuatanejo with his mother when she got caught and sent back. They are all very content not living in the USA.
While we were down there last winter we looked around for any sign of that Caravan surging north, supposedly closing in on Mexico City around that time. Granted, Ixtapa is a ways off the beeline from Nicaragua to Mexico City, but the route supposedly passed through the state of Guerrero, and that’s the state Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa are in. We saw no signs of migrants, though I had read some of them had dropped off the march in Mexico and found work along the way, already knowing Spanish.
The effect of the American reaction to Central American migration on Mexico does concern me. How much of the diaspora they can absorb before their infrastructure buckles, compassion and hospitality wear thin and society questions how come the United States isn’t paying its fair share, all puts a heavy burden on Mexicans to hold the political middle of Central and South America. They have taken on brave roles for keeping peace at both their southern and northern borders, the beginning and endpoint of migrant journeys. Seekers of asylum — the biggest reason to have when crashing the door to the USA — asylum — seeking basic elementary safety from specific harm — are not allowed to apply from within the US border and cannot wait within the US border and walk around free waiting for a hearing of the asylum petition.
People who enter the US first and then turn themselves in or get caught are held in detention camps for lawbreaking, which doesn’t look favorable for an asylum seeker not looking forward to being sent back. The detention camp brutality is a calculated policy by the Trump administration to make the word go out far and wide down the spine of the Sierra Madre to the Isthmus and Caribbean and down the Andes and throughout the Amazon, don’t come here and wade across the Rio Grande and don’t come here to sneak into the US because, asylum phylum, they will put you in an overcrowded pen like in a turkey barn, disappear your kids, scare your ass off like you might die then and there, keep you in caged concrete cells in the hottest region of the United States during the hottest season, feed you crappy food if feed you at all, deny you showers, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, encourage you to drink toilet water, let you sleep under a shiny foil blanket with the lights on all night, won’t help you get legal representation and may leave you there to rot until you agree to deportation.
Or you can stay in Mexico pending a hearing with an American official to plead the asylum claim calmly in front of an immigration judge — maybe within maybe three to five years. That’s a lot of people from Honduras, Salvador and Nicaragua hanging out in Mexico three to five years. Meanwhile there are Mexicans who would like to migrate in and out of the United States. Mexicans thus far have shown valor and distinguished compassion for their absorption of this humanitarian crisis and continually seeing what they can do and working things out for the greater good and not making excuses.
There is much cause for resentment of Americans and America but Mexicans would rather so far take an attitude above the fray. Our conversations skirt the most obvious political memes. Being a tourist is designed to transcend ideology. It’s amnesty, asylum and armistice. Tourists live under truce. Immunity. For this we agree not to get too snooty and invoke our superiority of culture, and our hosts agree not to shame us with our own hypocrisy.
Only sincerity survives when you go outside the hotel zone. There are many nice fakes on both sides but only the sincere enjoy the most benefits of the freedom to wander the localities. The Bay of Zihuatanejo alone is a hike through time and culture. The walk begins at the pier in the middle of the marina, the embarcadero, the place where the boats dock. The walk technically should begin at a couple of haciendas on the cliffs at the edge of the bay, but people aren’t allowed to hike on the property, it’s under guard. Also in that corner of the harbor the Mexican navy has a base. So the long day’s trek all the way around Zihuatanejo Bay can begin at the pier. From the Embarcadero you can follow the waterfront on a promenade for blocks and blocks of shops and places to eat. Every block connects to a street deeper into town which leads to more shops layered parallel to the water. Offshore in the bay’s calm water are moored the sailboats and the rowboats. The promenade leads you to temporarily end the shops and restaurants at an open plaza with a pavilion and a central basketball court where somebody’s always playing. Along this stretch of promenade from the embarcadero to the basketball court you can find your meal. A hand made rug. Vanilla. It’s the gateway to the commercial city inside the harbor town, the residences, the food market, surprising galleries and joyerias (crafted jewelry stores) and other shops, cafes and restaurants with interesting proprietors.
Continuing along the bay from the plaza the promenade encounters the first public beach, Playa Principal. From there the restaurants get a little more fancy, they’ll serve tables on the sand, and still the prices are under Ixtapa prices which are always a good deal, so it’s often worth the cab fare to the plaza, tips included.
After Playa Principal the hike along the waterfront leaves the edges of downtown Zihua for a series of beaches and stretches of rugged shoreline linked by a public walkway including some steps to navigate small stretches of rocky coastline between these beaches and the aging hotels from the 20th Century Fox back lots. Check out the Hotel Irma sometime for its mosaic inlays. The beaches are calmer than Ixtapa because the bay is more sheltered, so it has always been ideal for waders and swimmers. Playa Madeira is famous as a Spanish launch point for shipping timber harvested from the hills. Playa Ropa is the most famous for being the site of a cargo of fine clothes from the Far East washed ashore from a storm that wrecked a ship, making the people of Zihuatanejo — a Nahuatl word meaning the Place of Women — the best dressed people in the western hemisphere in the 16th Century.
Once you have reached Playa Ropa straight along the sea from the embarcadero, you may consider heading back and calling it a day. You would doubtless be hiking by day and the day’s heat would beckon you to siesta, and even at night in the romantic moonlight it would serve no point to go further than Playa Ropa on foot. You can get a taxi from any of the venerable hotels — you might consider staying at one in the future, for the charm — to return to Ixtapa. Beyond Playa Ropa the coastline along the bay borders on jungle, much as it does the five miles of ocean between Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa, only here the rugged coastline exists within the bay and very visible to the rest of the city. Mansions carved out of rock and luxury hotels ascend into the cactus, palms and mesquite, their sailboats moored in calm waters.
This next stretch of hike if pursued to the very end of the bay would involve rugged terrain on the fringe of private property, and more jungle, but there is a legend of a foot path. The most arduous jungle trek, when viewed from a boat, through the space least inhabited which is really a peninsula where there is no road for vehicles to get there, no matter how rich. When you arrive at the very end of the peninsula which is the door to closing the bay, you arrive at a place they call an island because there is no road by land, the foot path is treacherous, and everybody comes and goes there by boat, primarily the water taxis from the embarcadero pier, where the day hike began.
This end point is called Isla Las Gatas, or Las Gatas Island. It’s a strand of beach curved back to a distant view of the city, and all the boats in between, where the sandy beach is a promenade of open air cantinas, places to take a table beneath an awning, get a beach chair and sit in the shallow, calm water of the bay, get lunch and watch the sea crash upon the lava rock breakwaters. It’s like going to an extra resort, a day trip away from your resort, where the cantina’s groceries for the kitchen and the bar arrive by motorboat an hour after you do and since you arrived early you can stake out a keen vantage for people-watching on the beach promenade.
Las Gatas not only translates as The Cats, Isla Las Gatas literally translates as Island of Female Cats, or literally Pussycat Island. This is consistent with the town being named Place of Women before the Spanish arrived. Whether by power of suggestion or matter of fact, there is a strong feminist presence in the Mexican demographics. Women in the workplace. Shopkeepers. Proprietors. Among the Mexican tourists. It would not be surprising to find statistics showing Mexico leading at a world level in women regularly participating in the decisions and the professions. Except taxi drivers — still an all male job.
Genaro El General Salinas was one of the first restaurateurs I noticed hiring women waiters. Twenty years ago being a restaurant waiter was only a job for men. The Krystal hotel hired a few women. It didn’t seem to wreck the esteem of any male breadwinners. Genaro himself has two daughters who will be adults not long from now and who are born of a generation like my own grandchildren who have enough to think about in this life without second-guessing the rights of women.
There’s still a lot of machismo in Mexican men, they just learn to adjust and express manliness in more enlightened ways. Witness singers like Romeo Santos and Prince Royce.
At the Krystal main restaurant called the Aquamarine we opt for the breakfast buffet. I enlisted our waiter Jose to give a deciding opinion whether another waiter on the staff, Toribio, resembled as a dead-ringer the portrait of Benito Juarez on the twenty MX peso bill, the first Mexican born president elected to the republic. I meant no disrespect, so that’s why I asked Jose, and Jose agreed, Toribio looked exactly like Benito Juarez, his face, his eyes, his hair, and he consulted Martin, who concurred. I was given the okay to break the news to Toribio. Come to think of it, Martin bore a striking resemblance to Jose Maria Morelos, the face of the 50 peso bill, an independence fighter. Pretty soon we’re all looking around for faces in the crowd like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Then Jose subtly pointed out a guest at breakfast with his family he said could be past Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and since he wasn’t on the face of any currency I dropped out of the game. It was getting over my head.
It doesn’t seem long ago when Jose was the new guy, a cute young punk shlepping the sand hustling drinks to the beach palapas. Now he’s a senior servant like his mentors, Raphael, Toribio, Gloria, Anabel and the maestro himself, Jesus. Jose has children and they will grow to maturity, like Anabel’s kids, and El General’s, within the reality of their parents’ existential choices and their own perceptions of their own opportunities originating in their home town. They are the future of Mexico. All the years we relied on Zihuatanejo Ixtapa to serve us, feed us, comfort us and allow us to freely pursue our leisure escape from treacherous winter, year by year we notice the kids. Not just the little semi-beggars selling miniature toys from table to table during the dining hours but the school kids during weekdays. Kids of the guests at the hotels and on the beach, invariably Mexican families. Kids like the daughter of Roxanne’s favorite masajista Anna, who comes to work with her mom on days she doesn’t have school and likes to practice English with the massage customers from the US while we wait for our appointments. Kids like the teenage boys I call mozos who practice surfing after school on the waves at the more isolated edge of Playa Palmar. Kids starting out in the workforce serving burgers and malteds at Ruben’s. Kids hanging out with smart phones at the plaza. Kids doing dishes at the hotel. Kids performing at the nightly stage shows put on at the hotel garden.
By kids I mean young people, everybody at least two generations younger than me. The fresh talent. The ones who will take charge of the future of the Earth when the generation of me and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador passes on.
I wonder about these kids and what they make of this world. Technologically worldly, Mexico sports a very high literacy rate, so one can extrapolate probability that people have a lot of opportunity to be aware of what’s going on. Its government and sociopolitical economic system functions as a liberal democracy — if it has flaws, aches and pains, it too struggles in its way to be a more perfect union — it is far from a failed state. I look around to the young Mexicans and wonder what they think.
What is it like to grow up born in the Third World and raised in the age of Google, I wonder. Ponder. I have a young pen pal named Ariel who is nineteen. He recommends books by Chinua Achebe and John Katzenbach. He has a younger brother Uriel, seventeen, who is a dancer, a member of a traditional Mexican dancing troupe that has won competitions at festivals. They are sons of Anabel, who works at the hotel, whom we’ve come to know from our years at the Krystal. Ariel now works the night shift in the kitchen. Uriel is in high school. The primary question in my mind right now is how much do I want to know, to get inside their heads and souls and hearts, how much do I get involved, how much responsibility do I take on for the outcomes of their lives by befriending them?
It’s not possible to un-befriend them now, not without creating hurt feelings and confirming perhaps the worst ugly-Americanisms. I wish I could scholarship the whole bunch and dream dreams of winning the Powerball lottery and getting with our estate lawyers Steve and Jodie and researching the most efficient and totally legal way to give money to our friends in Mexico. As it is, as wealthy as we are compared to Anabel’s family, back home in our real life in America we’re just getting by. Part of that annual budget includes a month of winter in Zihuatanejo Ixtapa, tipping generously. Even so, back home we are just getting by — comfortably. In Mexico we are rich.
How Mexicans eye the disparity might be the key to future attitudes toward the United States. This is no time for gringos to get stingy with trade dollars when Mexico can look elsewhere in the world to export its agricultural products, chemical, mechanical and industrial technologies if the US cuts off the border for trade. The US has been Mexico’s Genie Friend for at least fifty years and should act with pride to sponsor its mature status among western nations and not patronize them as if they were children of a different species raised by foster parents.
In Zihuatanejo Ixtapa the influence of the American middle class gringo is fading slowly along generational lines. We are aging out of the demographics with less and less younger replacements — baby boomer American vacationers are frankly dying off, getting hips replaced and entering memory care while fewer of their children and grandchildren care to risk a sunny beachy vacation way down south in the middle of wild west Mexico. Jipes!
Gradually the Americans are being replaced by more and more Canadians, who suffer winters so ungodly severe it’s almost a law that their worker pensions guaranty a one week vacation a year in the tropics as compensation for being located along the Arctic Circle. (In Minnesota it’s not almost a law but some people treat winter vacations as like a 401.K or an IRA, independent retirement account.) The Canadians are unafraid of the latino armageddon warned by the American state department. Though not worth as much as the US dollar, Canadian money exchanges favorably to the Mexican peso so they can enjoy luxury at bargain prices compared to Florida, Hawaii or some of the southern United States. They have discovered a winter resting place and laid claim with their red maple leaf beach towels.
Among the Canadians the Mexicans make up for the diminishing Americans. They come by tour bus on the weekends. They come in their SUV and crossover cars from Jalisco and Mexico City. The fly in and out on Interjet. Mexicans taking advantage of their own Mexico, days and weeks at the seashore. Families. Couples. Multigenerations. The hospitality marketing to the upwardly mobile Mexican middle class has struck lightning in a bottle appealing to the home market for leisure time at the beach. In the enthusiasm of Mexicans to embrace Zihuatanejo Ixtapa as a vacation destination what I see is no fear. This assures me. It’s one thing to understand Canadians are naive and think only Americans should worry about their safety because they stick out by the way they pronounce their A’s, and still another thing to trust the Mexican fellow travelers for their calm understanding of themselves to expect no harm.
It’s what I said before as a sense the Mexicans are looking out for us, like guardian angels. Sometimes, but rarely, we’ve encountered hard stares right through us by Mexican fellow guests who don’t seem to want anything to do with us. This reminds me of the zombie stares I felt in public in Grenada, Mississippi from people who see you hanging with black people. It seems most Mexicans like Americans and treat us nicely, but some probably don’t like us and don’t express it, while some others express their resentment with cold indifference. These are not in the hospitality trade, but they are not people who would like to kill you. They just wish you weren’t there taking up Mexican vacation space. They know you aren’t Canadian.
How the Canadians are flying down there I’d like to know. The Mexicans I understand, they live in the region and drive a few hours by car or fly Mexican airlines. Some Canadians, I am told, drive their cars to Zihuatanejo from places like Calgary and Saskatoon, not only down through the whole body of the USA but all the way down about as far through the heart of Mexico. But most of them fly in and out of Zihuatanejo International, ZIH. I don’t know about their airports, but the past few years it’s been getting harder and harder to find nonstop flights to ZIH from MSP.
Minneapolis-St Paul used to feature routinely competitive nonstop service to Zihuatanejo several times a week. No more. Northwest Orient Airlines, based at MSP, then our home town airlines, owned a travel service named MLT which touted Worry Free Vacations offering air and lodging packages in an out of ZIH two or three times a week via Northwest. Charter fliers like Ryan Air and bargain airlines like Sun Country competed for passengers between MSP and ZIH offering direct non-stop service almost any day of the week from January through April, often on sale.
Roxanne and I first came to the Krystal Ixtapa on Worry Free MLT auspices, the best deal at the time. We’ve since learned to book our own. We’ve seen a vast drop in direct flights offered by air carriers serving MSP to ZIH with limited availability, strict choices and a leap in price. Delta Airlines acquired Northwest and in the merger divested its Northwest hub headquarters at Eagan, Minnesota, suburban Minneapolis-St Paul, in favor of Delta’s existing world headquarters at Atlanta, Georgia and its hub at the busiest airport in the world. To be sure, Delta still flies a lot of planes in and out of MSP, nonstops between a lot of world destinations through its affiliations with KLM and Air France. Delta competes with United and Spirit and Aer Lingus and Alaska and Frontier and other airline carriers for the domestic and international traveler via the Twin Cities airport. Delta still flies to Zihuatanejo. Round trip direct nonstop from MSP from a Saturday to a Saturday could cost a couple thousand dollars USD. No flexibility for a ten day trip. Otherwise Delta from MSP connects to Zihuatanejo through Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles or Mexico City, and still not much cheaper.
Sun Country, now the Twin Cities only home town airline, still provides twice-weekly direct nonstop service from MSP to Zihuatanejo, but don’t wait for a fire sale. The fare you see today is going up a few bucks tomorrow.
With fewer flights and higher fares that means even fewer connecting flights demanding routes through MSP to ZIH. With Delta making the trip an expensive all day hassle and Sun Country jacking the price and squeezing availability, it feels a lot like the airlines themselves are discouraging travelers against Mexico.
From Minneapolis it’s less than five hours away.
The mid-January outdoor temperature differential can be more than 80F degrees.
I don’t know of any conspiracy to wreck my winter vacation but the situation tests my patience. I figure if in the future we are forced to fly through Mexico City, then que sera, time to visit the Zocalo and Teotihuacan if we need to go the extra mile. If American politics harden the border for us to transcend the Wall, we’ll keep going unless it becomes impossible.
What would stop us would have to be traumatic, shocking and sad. We would have to be told we are no longer welcome guests of Mexico.
The General would never turn us away.
This past year a visitor from Iowa, a place called Okoboji, offered to paint a mural on a blank wall facing into the General’s flank from a little mini-mall around the back of the plaza. The Okoboji artist insisted, offered to paint it for free, showed sketches, demonstrated he had skills. Another wall next to this one already had a mural of sorts, promoting the General’s sports bar as a Husband Day Care Center. The Okoboji guy proposed a political cartoon of a wall across the desert with cacti and sand and the White House on the far side. On the near side are some Mexican guys looking past the wall. The wall is all cinderblocks and barbed wire and it loops back all along the horizon and behind the White House. In the foreground another Mexican (you can tell they’re Mexicans because they wear sombreros and moustaches and pancho vests) is either digging a hole or patching a hole at the base of the wall. (Could it be a shithole? Hmm.) And standing with his back to the wall across the hole from the guy with the shovel is the smiling figure of Speedy Gonzales the cartoon mouse — full copyright infringement no doubt, but defensible as satire — standing guard over the hole in the near foreground, drawn to scale against the cinder bricks to be about three feet tall, dressed in classic sombrero and his shirt adorned with promotion of The General’s Sports Bar.
By the time Roxanne and I saw it the mural was all the gringo gossip up and down the playa. It’s very unusual for someone to express a public stance on a political subject, much less express it in such a permanent fashion. Wherever the Okoboji guy is now, Geraro Salinas is on the hook for the mural and whatever it means. Obviously the subject is the Wall juxtaposed to the White House. The White House is isolated in the desert beyond an everlasting wall. Beyond that the whole scene is surreal. All the cactus are saguaro with their arms in the air. The sand is yellow. The figures are so stereotypical one questions if the imagery is racist, symbolic, parabolic, or gibberish.
It’s satire, I assured the General. Speedy Gonzales says it’s meant to be funny. I think.
Yeah, said the General, but I told the guy, if my next application for a guest visa gets turned down I’m holding him responsible.