Have you heard? The US State Department has issued a travel advisory against Mexico at the highest level of alert, on the same level as Syria and Somalia. Places where you can get barrel bombed with gas chemicals by the government or face a suicide bomber at the hotel. Mexico. Que?
Roxanne and I go to Ixtapa every winter. Eighteen years. We started taking winter breaks when our kids were young, Hawaii, Cancun. Once we tried South Padre Island. Punta Cana. When in my thirties I ran a little photo store for Krayon Film Shops in a shabby little shopping center in St Anthony Village which was owned by a guy named Juan Fulgencia Batista, former dictator of Cuba. One customer was a professor at the U named Dr Mirocha, and one day he showed me his vacation pictures of a place on the ocean with a palm tree beach he called Ixtapa and said it was one of the three places in Mexico where the government designated certain tourist development zones, the other two being Cancun and Cabo. Cancun was already highly developed, as I learned later first hand in the 1990s. Connections to Cabo were iffy from Minneapolis then. Hawaii was prohibitively expensive except when my brother Sean was stationed at Hickam, and it took forever to get there (this before we ever flew to Europe) so about twenty years after hearing Dr Mirocha at my film shop say to visit Ixtapa, Roxanne found a deal with MLT Vacations for a week, nonstop air and hotel.
Liked it so much we did it again the next year. And the next. At some point one week was not enough, nor ten days. For a professional couple in our early 50s, almost empty-nesters, it was some kind of Springsteen’s Beautiful Reward to get away for two weeks every last week of January. An entitlement we awarded ourselves each year for our hard work and dedication, and for enduring Minnesota winter. It’s no exaggeration how wretchedly severe winter days can be on end in Minneapolis. Our careers peaked, and with seniority came more PTO, and soon it required three weeks at the beach to work out all the stress of working the other 49 weeks of the year. We’re retired now. This year we were in Mexico a month. What’s the allure?
The weather is predictably consistent. Usually about 90 degrees F. Sunny, partly sunny or partly cloudy. Rarely overcast. It has rained twice — a novelty. Predictably good weather became a prime criterion for choosing our place to escape. Weather, after all, is the reason we take a midwinter vacation. Where we live, the cold is so harsh it sucks the life out of your bones. We would rather not risk a precious week or two away from inebriating cold weather in favor of a warm beach to chance encounter rain storms and chilly seas. Ixtapa in January, February always gives its weeks’ worth of paradise weather every year.
Located deep down Mexico’s Pacific coast, a thousand miles due south of Texas and about seven hundred miles south of the Tropic of Cancer, maybe three hundred miles south of Mexico City, Ixtapa is actually a few degrees south of Cancun in latitude, on the opposite coast. It’s almost as far south as coastal Mexico gets before it touches Guatemala and curves north to Yucatan and the Caribbean. Ixtapa practically faces south southwest to the Pacific, about a thousand miles free of the Baja California peninsula. Better known resort destinations such as Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo are hundreds of miles west and north up the coast, and the major city Acapulco about two hundred miles east and south. Much of Mexico’s west coast is rugged and rocky with a narrow stripe of seaside towns along the marinas and beaches bordering the Sierra Madre mountain range that forms the western spine of the country. Ixtapa was created out of a coconut plantation and a mangrove estuary deliberately to lure and habitate tourists in the virtual middle of nowhere.
Nearby, about three miles around a couple of small mountains along the sea is the longtime old town of Zihuatanejo. Famous as the eventual destination of Andy and Red in The Shawshank Redemption, the place functions as the municipal and commercial base of the region, which extends up and down the coast and into the foothills of the Sierra Madre. I like to call it Downtown Mexico. It is not a pretty town, but neither is it fake. This is where most of the hospitality workers of Ixtapa live. It is also a resort town unto itself with accommodations ranging from urban three story hotels above the tiendas and cantinas to traditional Spanish style hotels and condos on the cliffs above the lovely beaches on Zihuatanejo Bay.
I remember my first impressions of Zihuatanejo. The highway to Ixtapa from the airport passes through Zihuatanejo on a main boulevard before it becomes a short superhighway through some canyons before becoming a boulevard again at the hotel zone that is Ixtapa. We were on a tourist bus provided by MLT Vacations to take us from the airport to our hotels. I had a window seat and a cerveza. I was not surprised to see poverty, though I had witnessed worse in the Dominican Republic. Zihuatanejo was definitely a working class city. No evidence of glamor, not even an automobile showroom. What impressed me the most was the rebar sticking up from the corners of the roofs of the concrete homes. It told me the residents had hope and optimism, signifying that one day they planned to expand to a second story.
At the time of our first visit it was not long after we stopped referring to developing natures and cultures as Third World. When you come at later adulthood from a white narcissistic point of view it taints you for life no matter how inclusively educated you think you are trying to be, so you try a little harder and behold you see basic fundamental things around you that translate without verbal words. From the outset the people in the hospitality industry of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo have treated Roxanne and me as guests most welcome and sincere. It helps to have good manners and to respect our hosts. We took community education Spanish classes back home just so we could get along better on vacation if we made an effort to know how to pronounce verbs and order off a menu en espanol. Now, instead of through an agency like MLT, we book our reservations directly and take a taxi from the airport to the hotel instead of the bus coach, but it’s the same boulevard through Downtown Mexico. The good thing all these years later is the place has not caved or rotted from within. They paint their concrete buildings bright colors. The sidewalks are not trashy. There’s a car showroom now. It’s still not all that pretty but it’s still authentic. And there’s still rebar sticking up.
It’s still both penance and purgatory to ride through Zihuatanejo on route to Ixtapa. Ixtapa is the modern place in the rich world. Ixtapa is the destination at the end of the superhighway around the mountains. It’s where the high rise hotels and condos face the beach. Where the low rise shops and restaurants sprawl the blocks and plazas aloof across the main boulevard of the hotel zone. Where the golf course, nature estuary and eventually the yacht marina abide. In the mix is a community of vacationers and hospitality workers in a homeobiotically entwined tango of leisure and service among strangers who may never see each other again and persons who may never travel far from their neighbors and families. The inhabitants of the hotel rooms and condos along and near the beach are temporary citizens of a place where we live at best less than ten percent of the year and many will visit but once, and any attachment to the place is fleeting and narrow, lives focused on leisure by the sea with no visible means of support. The permanent residents of Ixtapa — there is a residential district in a valley beyond the commercial plazas and cocinas and older back street hotels — and of greater Zihuatanejo, which includes little towns like Troncones and Playa Linda to the west and Playa Larga and Petatlan to the east and who knows what into the mountains to the north, number more than 150,000 now, all stuck here in the middle of nowhere along the beautiful blue Pacific, all working in some capacity and woven by some thread to the tourists.
We repeat customers make up a nice slice of the pastel. Establishments respect this and thus a rather refined culture of service prevails everywhere in the region. It’s not just the people at the Krystal hotel who get to know you after so many years, or maybe a restaurant proprietor who’s seen you before, but it seems every place you go the people behind the counter, the drivers, the servants all greet you with respect and friendly intent. It’s a far far cry from the service indifference of Las Vegas. At Ixtapa Zihuatanejo there is a sincere, authentic culture of gracious hospitality (even when service is slow) that seems to spring indigenously among everyone engaging the public in a way that can be refined through good hotel and restaurant training programs but otherwise cannot be taught to a degree this heartfelt. Surely they’re doing it for the money but there’s more motivation and deeper meaning than tips, at least you hope so when you look into their eyes and see they care about what they do to make you feel welcome.
And so Roxanne and I have made ourselves at home at this Krystal hotel all these years. The room rates are affordable. The accommodations are comfortable and secure. Clean? At home I don’t scrub the bathroom and change the bed linen every day. As I said, we first came to the Krystal via MLT Vacations but after a while booked our own flights and directly reserved rooms with the hotel. Our loyalty derives from the way they have always treated us, with nothing less than gracious hospitality. It’s not just us. Everybody gets it. If anyone can get credit for setting the dorado standard for service in greater Ixtapa Zihuatanejo, the people of the Krystal hotel deserve appreciation. When you check in and they say, “Bienvenidas, welcome home,” they really mean it.
And it helps the location is in the middle of the middle of Ixtapa. On the boulevard it’s directly across from the gateway to the main plaza and the grid maze of commercial enterprises at a kind of crossroads towards the quieter part of town, the nature preserves, bike and pedestrian trails, stand alone convenience stores and restaurants, hotels off the beach and eventually the marina and its mall of sophistication. The boulevard has no stoplights, and is busy, but lined on each side with lush pedestrian walkways with speed bumps and crosswalks along the hotel zone from the marina all the way to the mountain boundary where the boulevard rises into temporary superhighway to Zihuatanejo. A walking trail along the mountain continues all the way into Downtown Mexico if you care to walk the four or five miles more. Ixtapa on the boulevard is about four miles long. The Krystal is almost exactly halfway.
On the middle of the beach. The coastline of Mexico is made of soft sandy beaches enclosed by rugged cliffs and rocky shores. Ixtapa faces the Pacific on a three mile crescent shaped strip of sand called Playa Palmar. The sea rolls in from the wide bay, horizon barely obstructed by a few rocky islands, water blue as heaven, the surf rough and white, then playful and foamy. And there on Playa Palmar the essence of the existence of Ixtapa plays itself as the theater of the playa.
At dawn the walkers and runners emerge. Then surf bathers. Soccer. Frisbee. Sand castles. Little kids. Boogie boarders. The Girl From Ipanema. Again. Volleyball. All day the beach is alive with people trekking back and forth along the shore, some stopping to play along the edge, others chasing the tide, others chased by the waves. If you take the walk from the Krystal in either direction along Playa Palmar you will encounter humanity more or less stripped to the skin, all engaged in freedom and pursuit of happiness at a place where the sun touches the land along the sea. What can be more human than leisure at the beach? Nowhere else can one witness the comedy and drama of the human condition, the mundane turned square, the romance and fury of young couples and elders like us keeping up, the savvy and the confused, the brave and the reckless, the modest and the profane, the foreigners and the locals, all ages and the ageless, the funny looking and the pretty, everybody making tracks in the sand up and down the beach. Then the sun goes down and everybody gradually leaves the sand and dresses for dinner.
Roxanne and I like to occupy a palapa on the beach below our hotel. A palapa is a thatched roof structure like a permanent palm leaf umbrella embedded on a pole like a tree trunk in the ground. There are dozens of them in two rows along the sea wall at the Krystal on the beach. Under a palapa we enjoy the view of the bay and the surf and the theater of the beach. The palapas include a couple of lounge chairs like they have up on the capacious pool deck, and it’s a great place to read in the shade. Many hotel guests contend for the poolside lounge chairs under umbrellas, especially ones facing the beach, but we prefer the sand of actually being on the beach along with the relative privacy of the palapa. We camp at our palapa all day, trust our belongings per se to the tree branches and leave our towels and books on the lounge chairs when we go for walks, dips in the sea or swims in the pool, or lunch. The palapa is home base. For dibs on a palapa at the Krystal on Playa Palmar four weeks of the year during the cruelest time of a Minnesota winter, we have plighted our troth the rest of our days on this earth.
For this we are informed by the US State Department we are risking our lives beyond the pale. (Or should it be Beyond the Pale.) To go to Zihuatanejo is to go over the Wall. We take our lives in our own hands. Our government dissumes liability. We have been warned.
Perhaps somebody forgot to tell the Mexicans.
I’m kidding, of course. Mexicans are well aware of the official American opinion of their society and culture, and it’s a high testament to their inherent graciousness and kindness that expressions of resentment usually go unseen. Given the insults and provocations hurled and steeped at Mexicans by the president of the United States it’s a blessing to not be judged as a generalized example of that kind of American attitude. Then again, why would someone with a hostile attitude about Mexico venture deep into the state of Guerrero anyway. On the other hand, if we act as well mannered ambassadors with any kind of influence we might serve to show we know better about our cross border relations than our nominal leader and get benefit of the doubt and be treated as individuals rather than Americans.
In classic fuhrer fashion he campaigned, ranting, “They send us their …” Plug in a favorite deplorable. One has to ask, who is doing this sending? Does he mean there is a bureau somewhere in the official government of Mexico that selects unsavory characters to be shipped to the United States? What does he mean, “They send us …”?
Are these deplorables picked like fruits and vegetables and shipped here in crates?
In Mexico, on the other side of the Wall, it’s hard to perceive the impact felt by Mexicans when the subject of politics does not come up in conversation. At least between the Mexicans and the anglos. Between anglo tourists there has always been an undercurrent of regionalisms and party affiliations and so forth you will always find among white people on vacation. We have been coming to Ixtapa since before 9/11, and since then have traced the nuances of liberal and conservative conversations overheard among the English speaking guests over the years, Bush years looking back on Clinton years, then Obama years, now the Trump years, always something in the wind. Iraq. Arab Spring. Obamacare. Terrorism. Immigration. You really rarely hear a conversation between an American and a Mexican about American foreign policy towards Latin America, though you might hear an earful from Canadians more and more who boldly assert they are more astute and better educated than Americans and can cut better trade deals with Mexico — even then you don’t hear a Mexican side of the equations.
I also don’t speak — or hear — Spanish that well. If aware of Mexican subcurrents of political resentment I have to look deeper into the eyes of each person I encounter, and that’s a lot of eye contact, even among the anglos. If the Mexicans are plotting against us behind our backs they hide it well. After all, in their mercantile economy the North American cash buys a lot of good will. Only the most cynical of forces would want to upend the cash flow of this community.
Not that it’s totally dependent on the tourists from the USA. Far from it. Canadians make up more and more of the visitors from the north and Americans fewer and fewer. The biggest gain in the vacation market at the Krystal hotel the past ten years is in the number of Mexicans from the greater urban interior of the country. Even so, Ixtapa Zihuatanejo likes North Americans and would do anything including suppressing information to express security to tourists from the north who come down there to spend money and have a good time.
We ask Alonso, a guy who works at the hotel we’ve come to know, is it safe down here?
He says if it were not inherently safe he would not live here. He echoes the mantra of being aware of your surroundings, the heart of said discussions with concierges in Florence, London, Amsterdam, Prague. Don’t go anyplace shady, he advised, or get involved with shady behavior. Trust us. We look out for you. We would warn you. This is as safe as your own home town. He tells us the in-joke around town is to refer to their city as Syriajuatenajo.
Yes, he’s telling us what we want to hear. We aren’t stupid — paletos maybe — and we know there are certain dangers associated with Mexico. Primarily what comes to mind is the country’s reputation for violence created by the drug trade. Gangs organize cartels which compete for market share, glory and political power. Murder is the ultimate tactic. They practice armed warfare and the police challenge them, and they fight back. Law enforcement has a legacy of corruption. The drug trade probably passes through Zihuatanejo by land and by sea, the highways linking the little ordinary towns together along the coast and into the hills and beyond to other states like Jalisco and Mexico City, and each little port of call on the Pacific from Acapulco to Ensenada. Rumors say the state of Guerrero is a nexus on the trade route, and that would seem logistically logical, given its natural location on the map, the topography, the access to the sea. As it is believable that trucks of oranges and avocados pass through Zihuatanejo, so do shipments of controlled substances. No, I do not have first hand knowledge of such goings on, I am supposing and applying hypotheticals because after all I am a stranger in a strange land and my government has expressed a warning to be careful and I must weigh the risks. I have no first hand experience with the drug trade of Mexico and for that I worry little about feeling its effect. I have no interest in acquiring or selling product of that kind and thus do not anticipate crossing paths with cartel gangsters or police for that matter.
Of deeper concern to me are political matters and socioeconomic dynamics in the community and region. A few years ago a busload of student teachers from a college in the northern mountains of Guerrero disappeared on their way to Mexico City to attend a political rally. The 43 student teachers are still missing, believed cremated at a mountain landfill. Mass graves were uncovered, more bodies than just 43. A gang cartel and leadership from the mayor of the town and his wife in collusion with at least 22 local police officers stand accused of participation in the mass murders. The student teachers were interdicted from their trek to their political rally because they stirred up trouble for mobilizing demonstrations for radical causes challenging both the authority of the mayor and the power of the cartel. I have no doubt nobody will get away with this, though the judiciary may move slowly in Mexico. (Face it, certain civil rights murders in the American south have taken fifty years to come to justice.) This case has pushed Mexico’s self awareness into inevitable confrontation with its vices and it’s gone too far to look away. What I observe as a wave towards scrupulous rule of law may be nearsighted and obscured by what I don’t see.
I used to buy a daily newspaper from a guy named Victor who sold them up and down the beach. He has a rich baritone voice — “English newspapers!” You could hear him coming a dozen palapas away. The paper was something like Mexico News, published in English Monday through Saturday from Mexico City. Cost me 150 pesos a day — about 75 cents USD. Rounded up a seemingly fair sample of stories from around the country. Water and sanitation projects. Education reform. Business reports. Government reform. Anti corruption. Appropriations for housing the poor. Features about artists and music festivals. Representation of women in government and the workforce. Editorials demanding accountability and justice, transparency and lucidity. I do a lot of reading on the beach at Playa Palmar, and it seemed right that I edify myself in what a Mexican daily said about itself, even if not in Spanish. It was a clue to the clueless. Of course it was of interest to read stories involving the United States, the Bush and Obama years, observing a neutral, objective tone of criticism and faint admiration of its neighbor and ally, and it was interesting reading coverage of world events from the Mexico City perspective, but I sought the domestic news pages to see how the country saw itself. Its coverage of the 43 kidnapped student teachers, how they wouldn’t let it go, highlighted what I saw as an essentially moral culture coming of age at a typical crossroads of modern civilization, just like the rest of us.
Last year Victor stopped selling the paper. Instead of hearing his rich voice hawking “English newspapers,” he was selling “Soccer t-shirts!”
So what happened to el diario? I asked. “Periodicos don’t sell,” he said, subtly correcting me. “It’s the internet. Cell phones.”
There is noplace in Ixtapa or Zihuatanejo I would point to as a newstand. Nothing like you might find at a transit kiosk in Rome, or a section at Walgreens, or a book shop on the concourse of an average airport. The literacy rate for Mexico is over 94%, so something tells me such a shop exists somewhere, just out of sight or in plain sight — where else would all those people get all those revistas you see the Mexicans reading at the swimming pool deck. I’m sure if I search enough or ask the right person I could find a daily paper in Spanish, so much for my laziness. Instead I fall back on the E-edition of my hometown paper via the pitiful hotel wi-fi on Roxanne’s iPad. In my way I fulfill Victor’s diagnosis. Throw in the cable TV and there’s Fox and CNN International amid the sports, soaps, kid shows and movies en espanol, commercials in Spanish, but nothing readily available as local news. Perhaps there is nothing new to know. Maybe it’s none of my business what might grace the local police blotter or who this candidate might be you see up on the billboard over the boulevard. I am, after all, a tourist, not expected to be concerned about the trivia of the day to day innings of the hundred thousand or so people who live there all year. I am expected to keep my nose out of the details, just kick back and enjoy the sun and the sea, the food and drink, the hospitality and comfort — just pay the bill. Pay la cuenta, por favor.
So long as I am safe to enjoy my leisure and freedom, what cause do I have to ponder the travails of the indigenese? For one thing, were the social structure of my paradise to fall apart my favorite midwinter vacation would be ruined. I suppose I could turn away and wave it off, go back to searching for somewhere else, Belize, Costa Rica, or just go back to hopping around looking for one-off deals. But eighteen-odd years at Ixtapa has bonded me to the place like a townie. It would not seem fair to extract such pleasure and good will without paying attention to the details of what accounts for the source of what satisfies our vacation. For me, I seek a serenity and balance of harmonies under a palapa at the beach on Playa Palmar in front of the Krystal, a headquarters of the head. Witness to the theater of la playa. Watching the waves roll in endlessly and continual. As reclusive as the long view of my endeavor, as private and shy my reflection, introspection and voyeuristic perspective, none of this would be satisfied if I did not look for a relationship with me and the inclusive world at large. It’s in my utmost interest to feel safe here.
A few years ago a local guide named Luis came to our palapa, as solicitors often do on Playa Palmar, to pitch his guided tour along the southeast coast by land, along the nine mile Playa Largo to a nature preserve. When I said we would think about it and get back to him he complained as he handed me his card about the tourists who come down there only to sit around on their butts on the beach under palapas all day drinking alcohol when they should be out experiencing the surrounding geography. Luis hurt my feelings that day, because I agreed with what he said about sedentary complacency and implied I might be wasting time doing nothing but drinking beer down at the beach. Luis never knew how interested we were in exploring south to the nature preserve, especially since the excursion included lunch.
In truth Roxanne and I have ventured outside the hotel zone often. The truth is there aren’t any bold attractions, no noted museums, no pyramids or temples, and very little archaeology. Alligators. Pelicans. A zipline hike. You can tour a tile factory up in the mountains, though be warned it gets way hot up there so bring extra water. The big excursions solicitors offer have to do with the sea — mainly fishing. Snorkeling at Ixtapa Island. The Booze Cruise. No sporting events (other than town basketball at the outdoor plaza court in downtown Zihuatanejo) and no arena concerts. No monuments of Spanish colonial history. There are bronze statues of Mexican commemoration of milestones of its history besides the 5th of May scattered here and there in the walkways of the old city — people and events admittedly obscure to us northerners unschooled in the details, like a Mexican in Minneapolis coming across a statue of Hubert Humphrey.
As it turned out we did not sign up for Luis’s tour. We asked around, talked to people we have come to know of the hotel staff to assure ourselves he was legitimate. In some ways we were still indoctrinated with mistrust — the MLT Vacations coordinators used to warn us never to engage excursion guides who approach you on the beach, implying they could be frauds who take your money and never show up, which we in turn suspected of being a ploy to keep all the excursion business confined to the MLT reps. The people at the Krystal all said Luis was a stand up guy, and Jesus Calderon, a veteran waiter at the hotel who knew Luis since he was a kid, when his parents both worked at the hotel and he practically grew up at the Krystal. Roxanne and I eagerly looked for Luis to come back. Most vendors almost befriend you and get back to you if they see you are the least bit interested. Luis never showed again. Not last year. Not this past year. I should ask Jesus what happened to him.
So Roxanne and I have yet to take the nature preserve tour. Or the Xihuacan excavation site. Or the tile factory. Or the zipline. We have gone fishing. The Booze Cruise, more formally known at the catamaran sunset cruise aboard the Picante, which is the name of the vessel graphically painted on the hull in the script of the signature of Pablo Picasso. We have gone snorkeling and spent time at Ixtapa Island and its counterpart at Zihuatanejo Bay, Isla Las Gatas, which is not an island at all but a beach on a peninsula at the junction of the bay and the open sea. We have ventured past Zihuatanejo down to Playa Larga, over the hills to Petatlan via Coacoyul, and beyond Ixtapa and Playa Linda to Troncones, a fair slice of territory confined to a small strip of coastline as middle of nowhere as you might find on this continent.
Some call it Going Off the Reservation, a derisive enough sounding term for leaving the confines of the resort to explore the indigenous countryside — no doubt coined by an American white guy, possibly a soldier — but aptly sums the perception you sense when one ventures outside a comfort zone protecting against invidious challenges. I first heard the term used in Punta Cana, where the contrast between the resort zones and the surrounding countryside of the real Dominican Republic is stark. I’ve heard it since in reference to Cancun, and even the Hawaiian Islands. It’s an offhand, shorthand term used thoughtlessly without regard to its reference to American Indian reservations, and its irony is in assuming a certain utopian fortress of security within the hotel zone not found among the inhabitants of most of the rest of the real estate of the country not devoted to vacation.
It’s ironic that people go someplace to be lazy and rich amid a populace who works so hard to keep up. We go there to escape. Our wicked winter drives us into exile. We’ve picked a place along the sea where it is hot and sunny. We used to go there to get away from work and the relentless daily pressures of the job, and now that we have achieved our senior distinction and have no professional stress we escape nothing of the usual mental and philosophical demands of life we would not face back home, except for the excruciatingly cold weather. It’s iconic that North Americans like to escape winter. At Ixtapa we have met people from all over the northern USA and all over Canada, everybody taking a break from the cold. Everybody knows how to say muy frio when we describe home in January. We must number in the thousands, descending upon the scene in waves, all these gringos coming and going, hanging out at the beach, sunning and swimming at the hotel pools, eating food, drinking, buying products and services, keeping the servants busy servicing them with hospitality day and night. I wonder which is more mind boggling of the other, the affluence of the vacationers or the austerity of the locals.
It’s impossible to blend in and be as anonymous as we might like, even among the countless gringos on the beach. At first it was easy to mind our own business and keep to ourselves just to enjoy privacy in exile. I like to read on the beach. And write. Under the palapas of Playa Palmar I deciphered Walter Mosley, Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Tony Hillerman, John Sanford and Peter Heller for clues to the nature of good and its opposing forces. Researched The Geography of Bliss, The Silk Roads and The Discovery of France in anticipation of European travel. I got into essays by David Foster Wallace and Sven Birkerts. I wrote in my journal, freeform and nasty as could be, and wrote letters to my grandkids in Switzerland. This privacy on the beach for inner deliberation in no way clashed with the outer real world of being on a busy beach in Mexico because it all seemed to flow together like the surf, everybody else was in their own world too.
Once when I wasn’t even looking for it I had an epiphany. While reading Changing the Subject, a book of essays by Sven Birkerts, a sort of follow up to his The Gutenberg Elegies which I read in to 1990s, both examinations of perceptions and attention in the internet age, I came upon the essay he titled “The Solieri Syndrome”, which is about envy. He writes about his Beasley, his model figure of someone who always writes something just a little better but significantly better than you. I realized right then my Beasley was Sven Birkerts. When I was younger I blamed my literary obscurity on there being already a Garrison Keillor on this earth. And a Leonard Cohen. More recently my Beasley was David Foster Wallace.
Absorbing deep thoughts and revelations like these on the beach at Ixtapa seems as calm and reliable as the weather, and I can see why somebody like Luis might construe that all I care about is sitting — lounging, no less — inertly, sedentary on the beach all day. They would be wrong to judge it unproductive. Yet I do not recommend Ixtapa as a vacation destination to anybody looking for a lot of action. They will be bored. As I said, there are no monumental attractions. Nothing like a Montreaux Jazz Festival. No Spanish castles. No Maya runestones. No active volcanoes. There’s a golf course around the estuary, but I hear if you golf you might want to get a tee time around sunrise or otherwise it’s going to be a sweltering round. There is no other reason to come to Ixtapa than to relax. There’s not much else to do.
Roxanne and I like this. There are vacations to ascend the Eiffel Tower and ramble around Pompeii and cavalcade through the Vatican Museum. This is a vacation designed to allow for peaceful appreciation of withdrawal from any compulsion to accomplish anything other than pleasures of rest and relaxation.
We swim in the hotel pool. The Krystal calls its swimming pool alberca (reservoir) rather than by the common word piscina. It’s a large pool of blue tile, curvy shaped with a tiled island towards the middle of its shallower end, which is about four feet deep. We like to swim in the deep end, which is through a short channel under a bridge from the main shallow end. The deep end used to feature a waterfall for kids to jump off, but it was kind of lame and a few years ago it was replaced by a water slide designed like a pirate ship with a mean looking monkey pirate with a sword on the crow’s nest, and the kids seem to like that better. We like the deep end because we can swim back and forth, there’s a tiny current from the jets on the side and the water slide, it’s less populated than the main shallower part of the pool, and the water is noticeably cooler and more refreshing on a hot day than the more crowded main pool. We go for a swim several times a day, especially when the sky is cloudless and the sun is muy calor and the sand is mucho caliente. The hotel uses a non-chlorine water filtration system so there’s no chemical feel or scent to the water. The pool deck is always packed with sunbathers on lounge chairs all around the pool and sitting along the edges and people coming and going between the hotel lobby, the restaurants and the outdoor bars, and up and down the stairs to the beach and the palapas. There is also a kiddie pool under the shade of palm trees. Waiters hustle drinks around the deck — they used to bring food too, but new health regulations restrict food to the restaurants and the shaded cantina along the sea wall. There are ample umbrellas and some palm trees around the edges of the deck. Music pulsates from Bose speakers under the palms. Activities like water volleyball, aerobics, bingo and even salsa lessons play out. The pool is the agora of day life at the Krystal. A lot of people spend all day around the pool the way we spend all day at the palapa on the sand.
We walk the beach, join the theater of the playa. Which way to go, left or right? The Krystal is in the middle.
Playa Palmar is Ixtapa’s grand promenade. Go left at the mark in the sand where the tide reaches nearest, where the beach is wet, and stroll into the flow of the tides of people all acting out the roles we portray. Exposed to the world, costumed in the bare basics we all — todos — present ourselves as the projected characters of our inner hearts, translucent in the spotlight of the sun. All at once. The flabby and the firm, the glamorous and the ungainly, plain and the pretty, chubby and chinless, the suave and the severe, all types cross paths. There are sun fiends with brazen skin like chocolate and fair fairies in scarves and hats like flower petals, and shades of cinnamon and caramel, and too often pink. Wear sun screen.
Little kids chase the ebb tide and the flow tide chases them back. Soccer matches scroll between nets; balls go loose among lanes of pedestrians. Guys and chicks go deep tossing american footballs. Frisbees whiz and curl as people play catch. There’s an Aerobie — like playing catch with the rings of Saturn. Pitching horseshoes. Bean Bags! Bolo. Volleyball. Families digging holes, burying their dads, making castles and sculptures and hearts and flowers in the sand. Clammers dig for clams. The word for sand is arena en espanol, so maybe the beach is less a stage than an arena of continual performances where even the ones watching from palapas and decks of the condos and hotels or on a blanket of towels on the sand or simply standing in the way there are no bystanders. Even the watchers participate. Runners trot through. Fast walkers pass the dawdlers. Selfies. Poseurs. Casual accidental photobombs. (Kids, please don’t throw sand.) Young parents show their first babies the sea. There’s romance and passion afoot, couples of all ages playing honeymoon. Tattoos and ample cleavage. Sportswear with mixed logos. Ball caps galore — but none MAGA. The word playera means t-shirt and there are t-shirts with all kinds of print graphics but nothing profane or very edgy. The chaos that exists on the beachfront supersedes politics, and it is the great neutral zone. Maybe a red maple leaf here or there but otherwise not much nationalism than a tricolor Mexican flag which you would expect, this being Mexico. This speaks well for the gringos not to take their bumper sticker snark wars on vacation so long as thousands of them mingle each day on Playa Palmar.
From the Krystal to the left it’s at least a mile and a half to the end of the beach. The beach is a crescent of a wide mouthed bay, almost four miles corner to corner, bounded by terraces of steep volcanic cliffs that cut the beach off where the sea meets rocks. If you walk it end to end you can kick the rocks like you can kick the wall when you walk the whole of Galway Bay. A ritual. At the far end of the walk to the left, at the edge of a terraced cliffside is a mangrove creek that sometimes flows into the ocean through the river estuary. When there is rain in the Sierra Madre the creek may flow open to the sea at the rocks and it is not prudent to wade across just to ceremonially kick the wall. Other times the creekbed from the estuary goes dry at the mouth to the ocean and the tides groom it over with sand and embeds some of the volcanic rock, all until the flow from the mountains again connects with the tides to open a channel across the end of the beach. Usually when it’s open it’s shallow and calm enough to wade across to lay a wet footprint upon a rock.
There are four hotels and at least four condominium complexes on this half of the beach, including the Krystal. The hotels are mostly high rise like the Krystal, which is 11 stories. One is a mix of high rise and low rise. The condos are high rise and low rise. The end property is a mix, a terraced series of condos up the cliffs above the beach called Pacifica, which has its own cable car across the mangrove creek and up the gorge to reach the upmost terrace of condos from the low rise array and give their guests sandy beach access on the beach side of the creek. Years ago there was a lot of high pressure sales to buy a time share in Pacifica — the most annoying aspect of an Ixtapa vacation, invitations to a free breakfast and a tour of Pacifica — but these days not so much, it’s either saturated — always looks high occupancy — or more exclusive who they solicit.
The hotels all offer beach access as well as swimming pool amenities similar to the Krystal, each with their own style. We checked them all out at one time or other and found no reason to turn away from the Krystal for any better accommodation or amenities. People gravitate to hotels for personal reasons or have no such loyalties, either way the five or six hotels on the beach at Ixtapa will give you direct experience to Playa Palmar. They are all of rather modern design, especially in contrast to hotels on the beaches of Zihuatanejo, having been built since 1980. Many of the hotels of late only offer rooms as all inclusive of food and drink. The Krystal offers all inclusive as an option, and Roxanne and I decline to partake, preferring instead to drink and dine a la cart.
What we would like would be to afford to rent a condo for a month, have a living room, kitchen and laundry of our own, but we don’t by ourselves have the means. There’s a 14 story palatial hacienda between a couple of average hotels on the beach called the Bayview where we’d like to live. Terraced like a wedding cake of black wrought iron balconies, its elegant presence makes it the top architectural attraction of Ixtapa.
The Krystal is shaped like a wedge with its angle edge pointed due west towards the ocean. Next door, of equal height there’s a condo high rise called the Amara. They built it on the land of the old Krystal tennis courts and a backyard scenic overlook at the ocean where the palms parted and revealed a group of roman columns where they used to say mass and perform weddings. The Amara was built over two years, one vertical half at a time. We used to be able to watch the workers assemble the steel and concrete and hear the clang and clunk of construction. Now it is a formidable, not ugly but austere white building of concrete and bluegreen glass balconies. From our room at the Krystal the apartments at the Amara look sumptuous, maybe elegant like those at the Bayview where we have actually visited. To the northwest from the Krystal, to the right along the beach beyond the other two hotels there are two more finished high rise condo buildings built since the Amara, within the last three years, and one currently under construction, half done. They tend to build half the structure bottom to top and then complete the second half while the first half is occupied. The white concrete architecture appears to grow plainer and more austere with every building, almost looking like elements from suburban office parks. One could be a government building, no style at all. When we walk by, going the other way from the Bayview, it’s hard to know who lives or stays at these newest places because there are rarely anyone to see on the pool deck or out front at the beach, not like the Pacifica, Bayview or Amara where there are large public crowds, palapas, sportive activities and swimmers in the surf, and in fact these new condos look rather lonely, maybe vacant or the habitats of very reclusive people.
Walk the beach to the right from the Krystal and the action on the playa resembles the rest of the shenanigans and hoopla going on from the Krystal to the Pacifica to the left and it blends with the human current, you might call it human traffic if it didn’t sound so exploitive to describe the flow of people on this three or four mile beach. About halfway to the rocks that border the sea at the marina, almost a mile from the Krystal to the right and past the two hotels there is a stretch of beach at its widest in front of a low rise set of buildings before a stretch of desert where a fence line defines what belongs to the beach and what is otherwise barren, vacant land. At this demarcation the flow remarkably diminishes. This is where walkers and runners might turn around and go back to the other half of the crescent, or keep going in smaller numbers all the way to kick the rocks at the marina.
It is this barrens area where the three newest condo high rises went up. It’s hard to not imagine what Playa Palmar might look like in fifty years, after Roxanne and I are gone, our footprints in the sand long confused and conflated and commingled with so many others and then washed away by the tides. More high rises above the low rises maybe. The first years we came there and walked the beach that direction we went that way because it was more secluded, less crowded, good for dawdling in the surf and contemplating the waves. Along the desert stretch was a good vantage to scan the wide bay where there could be whales and pods of dolphins. Of course you can see whales and dolphins from anywhere on Playa Palmar, even from a hotel pool deck. But it’s more likely you will actually notice them along this stretch of beach, maybe the perspective of the rocky islands and the lay of the rest of the horizon, and stop to watch a while until these creatures come up for air and dance for the silly humans watching from shore. Most of our sightings seem to occur when we are walking this stretch of beach. The first year we came here in fact there was a steel beam skeleton frame of a would be high rise in progress which was wrapped in plastic like a transit car advertisement for the future with a big image of a blue whale on it, and years went by and the plastic began to unwrap, the weather peeled it away and the whale shredded in tatters in the wind. Then one year they tore it down, dismantled the building. It’s the site of the new uncompleted condo. One hopes for success with these ventures enabling people to vacation when the beachfront of these properties look so sad and forlorn and empty.
At the far corner of the crescent bordering the marina there exists a cheery row of colorful low rise condos at the edge of the beach. These are where we would really like to live even more than the Bayview. Homey and hopeful they resemble townhomes more than condos, inviting and familial. Adjacent to the marina, they are not as isolated from greater Ixtapa than appears from the beach that meets the rocks. Another wet footprint on a rock.
The local surfers like to try their beginners luck on the waves at this lonely end of the bay. It might be to surfing the equivalent of the bunny hill, where novices practice their stand-up techniques. I say local because invariably these guys are young teenage mozos from around town hanging out with their surfboards after school, not tourists, not even from Mexico City. More than the general population they ignore us, the northern tourists, and we stay out of each others way. We do not shout or applaud their surfing moves and they don’t gawk at us for walking the beach like we’ve got nothing else to do.
The lonely stretch of beach in front of the new condos and the remaining deserted barrens makes a favorite place for kite fliers. Adjacent to the condo property on the barrens is a causeway for public access. The beach itself is public but the properties that border the beach block public access, so every so far, and all along the stretch of barrens between the condos and the hotels are common pathways from the boulevard to the beach, which is how the surfers, locals and other tourists staying at off-beach hotels get in.
Rounding out the middle of the beach between the two hotels adjacent to the Krystal and the condos is a row of low rise buildings spaced among the public access venues. One is bright pink concrete block and features a round tower, and it’s called Delfiniti, home of the dolphin aquarium where you can swim with the dolphins. Next to that is a wide ranch looking wooden hacienda with a wide porch that used to be a Carlos and Charlies, a nightclub known for dance music, balloon hats, blue mescal and jello shots — like a Senor Frog’s. During the day they offered skydiving experiences where you would end up landing on the beach. Maybe ten years ago it closed as Carlos and Charlies. Some say it was a tax dispute. They still serve beer and tacos in the day time and run a couple of stands on the side selling lunches, souvenirs and beach toys, but it’s hard to say what goes on there at night — it must not be a nuisance to the community. Carlos and Charlies used to hire party guys to parade up and down Playa Palmar in sombreros wearing a long sash sign advertising the place by name, sponsored by Corona and Tecate, touting Carlos and Charlie with a bull horn and somebody toting a throbbing boombox, but not lately. If there exists a rowdy nightlife and party crowd at Ixtapa it does it on the sly, not obvious. Roxanne and I aren’t interested in staying out and partying until 3 a.m. — okay, let’s say we are interested but don’t have the energy to stay out late and party — so we’re not the target market for such folderol. One gets the sense of taste and decorum at Ixtapa Zihuatanejo, a downplay of obstreperous vice. If one sees somebody behaving badly it’s generally just rude but not vulgar. Maybe it’s the dominance of the elder crowd like me and Roxanne. Maybe the young people know how to have a good time without being bad. Maybe it’s a marketing approach to middle class families. It just doesn’t feel like a place where all hell breaks loose at night.
Someplace it does, I’m sure. You hang out with people who hear rumors. It’s never clear who found the body or where exactly it was found floating in which shallow of which bay that one year, but it was not a tourist. A few years ago somebody tossed a hand grenade into the Zihuatanejo police station. Our friend Bob reminds us that everywhere in this world there are people up to no good in the middle of the night. This past year there is the story of some guy getting shot to death — some say outside the new casino in Ixtapa but others say it occurred outside the strip club known as Kisses in Zihuatanejo — for complaining to a pimp about the quality of the prostitute and demanding back his money. We have seen checkpoints set up on the highways by the federal police. Some years ago we saw them in staggered pairs walking the beach of Playa Palmar, in uniform with body armor carrying machine guns, on patrol. They ride on the boulevard once in a while in the backs of military grade trucks. Sometimes they wear masks — one guesses so as not to be identified — like ski masks. It’s unnerving to see such a military police presence. At an off beach hotel where we sometimes go to eat there is a barracks of federal police who come to Ixtapa for training. It’s naive of us to think there are no issues of law and order just because there is no crime news that gets into the tourist community, whether being managed that way by the hospitality industry or because it’s essentially none of our gringo business. It would be cynical to assume crime is rampant. You wonder whether beer delivery trucks are guarded by men toting rifles to deter theoretical beer thieves or in response to actual beer hijackings.
You hear about vacationers slipping and falling on a pool deck greased with sunscreen, and people breaking a leg or a shoulder getting tossed by the surf. You don’t hear about tourists getting mugged. You hear about tourists getting injured in vehicle accidents on the highway to Acapulco but you don’t hear stories about tourist victims of larceny. True, maybe the guy who got plugged grousing about his puta was a tourist — would a local pay for sex? Who would know? Who wants to know? What might scare off some tourists might attract another kind, and vice versa.
It pays to be sincere. If you expect to fake it and never come back and never be seen again, just a one night stand taking all you can get, you will be treated just as well but they know you’re fake and won’t take you seriously, and laugh behind your back, sometimes curse. The servants know you won’t come back. They see a lot of strangers like you. They treat you nicely so they don’t look bad in front of people who care. If you keep coming back year after year you can expect to be remembered, so if you’re still faking it and aren’t feeling a cold draft of indifference you must somehow be acting sincere.
We are guests, after all. Yes we pay, and some pay dearly for the vacations of our dreams, our escapes to warm weather and sunshine and worry free leisure. We owe our host country respect as we consume their seemingly limitless hospitality. We flatter ourselves silly to think we are entitled to gracious treatment because we’re tourists and they owe us a good time because without us they would descend into social chaos. Mexicans know better.
What they truly think of us behind our backs is perpetually obscure. The sincerity thing of course goes both ways. Maybe since Mexicans have home turf advantage they can claim the higher road and benefit of doubt. Some are just naturally born good smilers.
My favorite example of our interactive hospitality is the massage industry located at the fringe of the beach between the old Carlos and Charlies and the grassy barrens sequestering the high rise condos. It started several years ago, under white tent canopies extended off Carlos and Charlies. Always women, they wore white clinical jackets and waved at the beach walkers headed towards the marina, coming down to greet us at the water line offering a one hour massage for a hundred pesos or $10USD. Some handed out business cards, rather elegant actually, some with names for their tents like Rosa’s. Their english was not good but they offered full body and reflexology, guaranteed you like, one hour. When they first came on the scene it seemed no different than any of the solicitations you get from vendors on the beach, and we took the business cards from Rosa and Sofia and #4 and looked them over, looked at their muscles and their hands and listened to their offers and looked them in their eyes and said maybe. Tal vez. Tal vez manana. We kept walking and kicked the wall, watched surfers and runners go by, looked for whales in the bay and speculated when this Fonatur outfit might go back to work to finish off the steel frame of a would be high rise now wrapped in plastic with a mural of a whale on it, and why not try a massage one time before we skipped town.
It was a transformational experience. We were hailed at the edge of the tide by a lady or two in white jackets, agreed on a price and followed them up a watered path straight to tent #2. Young men and boys kept the sidewalk in the sand cool and moist to guarantee it was not a hot walk to the tents and to supply buckets of water to wash the feet of the customers at the door to the tent. Inside there were about four massage tables, all laid out as sanitary as could be with clean cloths and towels. You stashed your glasses and t-shirt and any belongings in a basket under your table. You lay face down as instructed by mime, gesture and a few words. There is a code of silence within the massage. La masajista says but four things: strong, light or medium? Es okay? Over. Finis. She might be nineteen years old, or thirty, or fifty. The elders supervise the younger ones. How young is young, one cannot tell and never asks. Did they go to massage school? It is obvious there is some kind of training academy out there, they are all uniformly precise and practice the same rituals. Beginning with the back they work around the body, the neck, arms, legs, always back to the back. They work their fingers into your tired and stressed out flesh and revitalize every nerve. When they say to turn over they work all your limbs again. You always get an honest hour.
The second year they doubled their rates and increased the tents and still hailed walkers on the beach, waving from their round picnic tables under umbrellas fronting the tents. With a measure of guilt the scene reminded me of a scene from the movie McCabe and Mrs Miller, a wild west story where a woman establishes a brothel in a way station mining town, and a lone cowboy played by Keith Carradine rides out of the plains to the outskirts of this mountain town where a group of big white tents consisting of the brothel greets him emergent with women all waving and calling him to their spa. My guilt is associating the “Sisters of Mercy” in the movie, if I recall the soundtrack, with the masajistas of Playa Palmar.
There is nothing sexual to be gained from these massage parlors on the beach. The ladies who work this trade act in the most modest and innocent and appropriate manner you might conceive of. To enforce a code of appropriate conduct towards the masajistas, the guys who tote water and keep the paths wet provide a macho security presence, though one would not want to take on a gang of defensive masajistas if one of them yelled the spanish beachside version of Hey Rube, Mayday, if some customer got out of line. It seems naive, but I’ve never so much as heard a rumor of someone getting fresh with a massage lady. On Playa Palmar a massage is a massage, that’s all the happy ending there is.
Which is not to say I have not had my old man crushes. As years went by, one by one the tents were replaced with wood frame cabanas. There are about seven of them now, each supporting eight tables. They are usually busy but still compete on the beach to fill vacancies. Roxanne and I get one just about every other day, they are still that affordable. Over time we find favorites, or maybe they find us. We tip, so that’s an incentive to cultivate our return business. They started taking appointments, writing us in their notebooks.
My first true crush was Janeth. She was very dark and pretty. She was a massagist with a very acute touch. I cannot say of all my random visits I ever had a bad massage on Playa Palmar, because even the laziest or more tedious ones were good massages, there are some kind of standards to the trade there at the beach cabanas. Yet we have found luck in being adopted by some of the most gifted massagists in the whole world whose talents, techniques and skills exceed those at the toniest spas and elitist clinics of my home town Twin Cities, and that’s a fact. Janeth found exact places in my muscles to refine my nerves. When I used to work in an office I developed a place in my neck and shoulder that seemed to absorb all my stress, and she found it and worked it free. The years after I blew a tendon in my right arm she soothed it. I would lie there face down, my eyes closed, listening to the ocean, the beach sounds, the latin pop music drifting from old Carlos and Charlies, the voices in spanish, and Janeth would work me over, head to toe. Lying on my back I could look at her for a while, when my eyes weren’t covered by a cloth. She had delicate ears. Eyes deep and dark. Black hair worn up off her neck. A little scar on her chin. Didn’t smile much. Didn’t seem to care much about learning English. An hour on the massage table offers a fortune of meditation, reflection and consideration. The session would end with a little aromatherapy wiggled from her fingertips and the whispered word finis, like wake up and pay. I would try to think up a clever phrase in spanish, like Soy un hombre nuevo to get her to smile. I would schedule my visits around her day off. She would see us coming and walk on down the path to meet us by the sea as if to make sure none of the other ladies would take us.
Then one year she wasn’t there any more, not in #4, not in #2. I didn’t ask after her — our relationship was never informal, and I don’t think I ever addressed her except as usted and not tu. It seemed none of my business to get publicly inquisitive about a certain pretty masajista, even in a grandfatherly way, when after all she didn’t share much about herself in the first place or care that I was from the land of muy frio.
Roxanne meanwhile found her own swami of the massage table in a lady named Anna, while I followed taking random first availables. Until one day on the beach we were singled out by a tall and beautiful deaf mute and her elder interpreter, who led us up to #3 and escorted us into a level of massage I can only describe as celeste. The elder masajista took Roxanne and turned out to be the mute’s mother, who also turned out to be an Anna with the other Anna’s massage mojo.
Thus I met Zuli because that’s what her mother said her name was and I can spell it because Zuli wrote it down. Zuli wrote things down. And she didn’t require spanish spoken because she could not hear. She spoke with her eyes. She almost had Frida Kahlo eyes. She made vocal sounds for emphasis. She read lips. She gestured, sometimes forcefully. She mimed. She knew sign, but unfortunately I do not.
So for the primary question she made a muscle and touched it with her other hand to mean fuerte, strong, and I nodded and said por favor. Zuli took it from there. She had a gifted touch. She found all the places within my muscles of my body that needed attention, and she soothed me and disassembled me and put me back together. My infatuation began at her first caress and hers has ever been the benchmark of massage for me. She is gifted.
One sign I do know is the hand from mouth that says thank you. I tip. She brings out her spiral notebook to sign us up for a future appointment. We were going every three or four days then, about three or four times per vacation. No it’s about an every two day ritual. Over a few years Zuli ended up teamed with the original Anna, which suited Roxanne just fine, while Anna Zuli’s mom went on to supervise another cabana, but she comes by to say hola now and then.
Zuli has a free and open smile. She does not seem to mind that I study her when my eyes are uncovered, and I sincerely try not to stare too much. Truly she has beauty. I do not want to make her uncomfortable with my eyes. Especially now, in light of the Man Up doctrine, but all along it’s been a tango with decency to enjoy being wrung up and smoothed out by a beautiful and exotic younger woman. The professional nature of the encounter being understood above all, an hour on the massage table under the spell of Zuli, or Janeth, affords infinite meanderings of the soul, the sound of the ocean, the spanish voices, the music drifting from the big building, and the clean realization I am living a dream in the hands of a beautiful younger woman, giftedly talented at the art of massage. One hour of celeste.
Just this past winter on our first full day we walked to the massage cabanas looking for Zuli and the Annas. Instead we met up with original Anna and her new partner Isabel. In spanish-english and tummy mime we learn Zuli is on maternity leave, expecting her baby any day. Wow. Just the year before we learned Zuli was getting married — all the ladies were excited she got engaged — so it didn’t seem strange she might be having a baby, it just inconvenienced me from my favorite masajista. But I didn’t pout. Turned out Isabel knows all the right moves. Too strong perhaps. Had to scale back to medium with Isabel. Another star from whatever massage academy they train their talent. Hers is cabana #4, and they keep a spiral notebook. They keep us apprised about Zuli. We wonder if it will be born Valentine’s day and be named Valentina. She has a baby girl. Isabel shows us pictures on her smart phone. She takes pictures of us to show Zuli. The baby is named Yareli Yamilet. I call her Doble Ygriega but nobody really laughs at my idiom. Isabel shows pictures of her husband a kids. One day she showed us something she bought that day, a doggie bed for her family dog. Somehow she and Anna learned of Roxanne’s birthday and they presented her with a tie-died beach wrap shawl. They get a kick out of Roxanne and me being married 45 years.
By far Isabel is the chummiest of all the masajistas we’ve known, though there’s no telling how communicative we could have been with Zuli if we knew sign or I had been more fluent in spanish with Janeth or any of the others. Isabel is outgoing, tall, slim and muscular. One would not be surprised to see her on the basketball court at the plaza in Zihuatanejo. She has light, caramel skin tone and she bleaches her hair blondish. She listens to headphones while she works. She has bright eyes and smiles readily and makes eye contact with reassuring glances, though like everyone she places a cloth over the eyes when working you on your back — better the meditative state. Like with Janeth I like to come up with something nice to say en espanol when I thank her and pay her. In praise of her massage skill I suggested she go to school to be a doctor.
I tell you about the massage cabanas at great risk. It is so far an undiscovered treasure — at least underhyped — and there’s a moral obligation to include information useful to any and all tourists to Playa Palmar even if attention might lead to spoiling the market. Yet it serves to tell a metaphor of our ties to the Mexicans whose home we inhabit one twelfth or so of a year.
After year. No end in sight. Hope in twenty years we can still get on and off an airliner, ride a taxi. Meanwhile we’ve insinuated our ghosts into the seasonal fabric of the community, which gives a lot to think about in 2018 when meditating on the massage table with Isabel working that stiff calf, or walking the beach towards the Bayview, or from a chaise under the palapa. There’s a whole world going on and it doesn’t stop for vacation. The Mexicans don’t just pack up and go home after the northern tourists go home, this is their home, we’re the foreigners it’s not the other way around.
Still, after eighteen odd years visiting the same old place we learned our way around and got comfortable navigating the towns. The true allure is to lounge under a palapa at the Krystal on Playa Palmar, but it’s also fruitful to venture away from the resort territories to places and parts of town that function for the immediate community but are of generally little interest to vacationers. We have walked the streets of Zihuatanejo, not just the bay-front promenade but the backstreets of shops and cantinas all the way to downtown where the main markets are, where the people who live there shop. And eat. The local mercado offers fresh food from the sea and the farms. The main architectural feature of the downtown shops is the garage door that comes down after closing hours at night. Otherwise when they are open the inventory explodes out the door. There is the smell of good food. There are cantinas on just about every other corner where you can get a good authentic hearty meal and beer, just look at all the locals who eat there. Next to the harbor along the promenade are where the renown restaurants are, Daniel’s, Coconuts, Casa Elvira, Sirena Gorda and so on, and they all prepare and serve good comidas with gracious hospitality.
Roxanne and I have hiked into the high streets behind the beaches going beyond the plaza of the promenade, back beyond Hotel Irma and other landmarks along Playa Madera and Playa Ropa and the old glorious era before Ixtapa was invented, when Zihuatanejo was an exotic destination unto itself, a grand overview of the bay. We have toured the old colonial headquarters that serves as a historical museum today. We are comfortable taking the bus. We know where the library is. There’s a Sam’s Club, and a warehouse sized store similar to a Wal Mart called Aurerra Bodega on the edge of el centro on the boulevard to Ixtapa, a great place to shop for bakery goods.
At the furthest tip of Zihuatanejo Bay curls a peninsula they call Isla Las Gatas, island of the (female) cats. It is not really an island but is isolated from the developed edges of the city by a rugged stretch along the southern part of the bay where there is no road and only a rocky trail it would take several hours to hike. Everybody takes a water taxi to Las Gatas from the embarcadero at the pier where the promenade to the plaza begins. Next to the navy base. Be sure to bring peso coins to tip the mozos who vie to help you climb in and out of the water taxis, which are bench seat versions of the fiberglass panga boats that make up the fleet of small fishing vessels which stock the food supply or offer sport fishing excursions to us tourists. The cruise to Las Gatas is a tranquil ride away from the action around the pier. There are hundreds of boats in the huge bay, moored and actively navigating, sailboats to the west and south towards the hotels and old villas, new mansions. The view of the bay on the water taxi or a fishing excursion is naturally the opposite of the view from the hills behind the hotels, restaurants and villas which look down to the sea. From the water taxi you see the city rising into the hills crammed together at its crux like a mash of concrete and stones abiding in a craggy jungle, green almost in spite of its urban self. The city tapers towards the beaches even as the buildings emerge more distinct, the higher rise old hotels, the villas in the emerging cliffs. The jungle takes over gradually to the south and east bay, where most of the sailboats dwell, the rugged way to Las Gatas, and by this time the passengers are engaged exchanging origin stories and impressions. The sea is usually calm across the bay but never flat. The breeze feels fresh en route.
Always remember to watch your head getting in and out of a water taxi. At Las Gatas you disembark at a gateway to a strip of beach maybe a mile long lined with cantina after cantina with open air amenities, lounge chairs and long tables for picnic seating. They offer lunch platters of seafood and cheap drinks overlooking the coral breakwaters at the beach overlooking the city far across the bay. They offer snorkeling, but it’s really pretty sad, the coral is dead and the fishies not so bright. Better to just bathe in the sandy spots and feel the gentle waves in the clean sea. Every cantina vies with the others to get you to occupy their chairs and tables at their beach, so you can expect an enthusiastic welcome. Whichever you choose, the hospitality will follow, and the food will be exquisite. You can feel a little detached from the mainstream here, so much sea between the beach and the city across the bay, encircled by rocky clefts and a jungle that includes the sight of saguaro cactus growing from the craggy cliffs.
A counterpart to Las Gatas the other direction on the coast is Ixtapa Island, which really is an island. You reach there again by water taxi, this time from Playa Linda, a beach town slightly northwest of Ixtapa. The fishies are brighter and more lively for snorkelers at Ixtapa Island, and the coral more alive though sadly on the decline. The waves can be rougher too since this island does not have the bay or breakwaters to soften the sea like Las Gatas. Ixtapa Island is smaller area and features fewer cantinas but the hospitality is similar. And like Las Gatas and Playa Palmar and just about everywhere you go, expect vendors to visit your beach chair to offer you something for sale, massage too.
Ocean cruise liners used to make excursions at Zihuatanejo. The bay is too narrow to admit a cruise ship but they used to anchor outside the bay and transport guests to the embarcadero pier. A few years ago the Mexican port authorities launched a plan to redevelop the Zihuatanejo pier and extend it from the embarcadero across the northwestern edge of the bay to the mouth of the bay across the channel from Las Gatas to allow oceanliners to dock. The locals debated the matter and ultimately rejected the plan. Making Zihuatanejo a regular port of call for Pacific ocean cruises would have meant tourist traffic of untold dimensions. The resident interests in Zihuatanejo largely foresaw more harm than good from such a massive invasion of the tourist industry and ultimately vetoed the pier project. As a result the ocean cruise lines stopped coming to Zihuatanejo altogether, which shows in the absence of encounters with cruise guests who used to take day trips to Las Gatas to soak up the sun and tell you where they were from. The resulting loss of business may actually enhance the experience for the rest of us by deterring overcrowding. I give credit to the citizens for preserving an organic character to their community. Progress and change are inevitable.
Besides our explorations of Zihuatanejo the city, Roxanne and I, of our own curiosity and wonder, shadowed Luis the young guide’s invective of getting up off one’s butt and getting out and about to experience the local geosphere. Beyond Las Gatas and Ixtapa Island, Playa Linda, we’ve ventured up and down the coast as far as Playa Larga to the southeast and Troncones to the northwest, maybe a stretch of a hundred miles. The highways along this stretch of coast are excellent, but we don’t drive here like we don’t drive boats, we take a bus, taxi or employ a guide with wheels, or on some cases ride in somebody’s family car. Or all of the above. It’s they who know the roads and the streets. The beach communities along this route border little neighborhoods of chicken and avocado ranchers, the coconut palms and homesteads of the townies of generations of rural existence. There are highway stands selling sea salt. Away from the sea, amid the hills that eventually rise up into the unforgiving Sierra Madre there are big towns linked together by good roads, such as Petatlan which really is a coastal town approached from a highway through the hills and features a church on a hill above a merchandising district selling home made jewelry. The state capital of Guerrero is a town called Chilpancingo, some two hundred miles inland straight east of Zihuatanejo, about the same distance east along the coast as the big city, Acapulco. We have been to neither and may never go, having limits to our curiosity.
It’s considered bad manners to gawk and spy on the indigenous communities who live in the hills and mountains. We respect that. It’s acknowledged there is poverty and subsistence living standards in Mexico and a significant number reside among the descendants of the Olmec, Toltec and Tarascan peoples who live around Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa in the hills. To say they are a shy people is to only begin to understand how little they are interested in socializing with the world outside their own. Their distrust of outsiders goes back to times with Spain. They are especially sensitive to American missionaries. They speak Nahuatl more than espanol. Yet many charitable North Americans have built relationships and certain bonds of trust with these indian communities to get them to accept charity, books, architectural construction, clothing. Several of the older retiree vacationers you might meet on the beach are volunteers to Zihuatanejo charities, and they will say the indians are most against meddlers, it’s hard to get invited to help them.
I learned a few years ago, in a chance conversation at dinner with someone we met through an introduction on a walk on the beach at Playa Palmar, Professor Mirocha, my long ago customer at the film shop, kept coming down there every year and got involved in a common group who collects shoes for kids. Other tourists you meet say they collect sweaters. They raise cash for charities at an annual event called Sail Fest in Zihuatanejo. You learn there is a network of anglo expatriates and snowbirds actively volunteering in community service projects, so you find proof not all gringos go down there to raise holy hell, trash the place and go home with suntans.
So no, I cannot claim to have visited primitive villages. Yet we have tried to get to know these people who make us their guests, get some idea who they are. Care about them. I would calculate we have lived at the Krystal hotel over a year of our lives, averaging over three weeks a year for eighteen years. What are we crazy? It’s proof of what Einstein said about doing something over and over, we expect the same result.
At the palapa the theater unfolds, as if it were folded. The vendors pass by selling whatever they sell. Sunglasses — lentes! Sock-air tee shirts! Guys selling jewelry out of black valises. Tattoos (henna). The braid ladies. Hector sells his wood carvings out of his big backpack with at least two things displayed in his hands; it took years of asking him questions about his methods for me to believe he rally carved them and was not just selling factory made wood carvings; we’ve bought two things, a two foot palm tree and a standing buffalo; he makes his stuff from ironwood, and they have a deep polished tone. They shlepp back and forth, up and down the beach every day in the sand and would like nothing better than to be invited into the shade under a palapa to sell you a mobile of fishes brightly painted and made of coconut and filament and wood. Jewelry. The one I call La Senora del Ropa carries the inventory of an entire showroom of dresses, beach wraps and cover-ups for women, all on her back and looking like a walking garment district of a patchwork of parachutes; she’ll put the whole pile down to make a presentation, offers things to try on, spreads her dresses across the sand, picks your colors; she makes her sales, piles everything up tidy on her back once again and shlepps on down the beach. The hat vendors — ball caps, straw sombreros, and the now ever-popular among latina women, fedora hats. Then the guy who sells magazines — revistas! — carries them stacked on his head — the brother of Victor, who used to sell newspapers but now sells soccer t-shirts. Guys offering fishing expeditions, excursions to Ixtapa Island — the guys the MLT Vacations concierge warned us about so they could exclusively book our charters. Nick-nacks. Not a lot of food — the hotels and health department might discourage it — but occasional home made juice popsicles, and the haughty Tamale Lady who carries the tamale of the day inventory in a red cooler. Most everyone passes by twice, once coming and once going.
The guys who really look beat in the hot sun are the bands of musicians, invariably older guys dressed as cowboys in hats and boots, lugging their instruments — guitars, accordians, snare drum and cymbal, upright bass — shlepping up and down the beach looking to make some pesos catching a paid set under someone’s palapa and singing Ay yi yi yi…
The most glorious beach vendor of all, and this includes even the masajistas, is a guy named Rafael, who bosses the operation who provides parachute rides towed over the bay attached to a rope pulled by a big inboard engine speedboat. All up and down Playa Palmar there are at least two and sometimes as many as four such parachute sites being serviced by one or two boats lying just beyond the breakers off the beach, the tow rope as taut as can be arranged between the boat and the crew on land who kite up the parachutes rather than leave them lay on the sand, to keep the lines free and to attract business. Each parachute is an advertisement of something, Corona beer, Hollandia ice cream, Bandito’s restaurant. I like to watch Rafael hustle the chutes, the boats, the ropes and the paperwork, all while managing his crews and looking like he loves every day. A lot of days he wears zinc oxide on his face so he looks purple. He wears shades with colored frames and a faded ball cap. I take a ride from him once a year. He rents boogie boards on the side for $5 an hour USD and I get one of those once in a while when the surf is right.
The most righteous beach vendor of all is known as Benny. He stalks the beach all day long, back and forth, in his crushed ball cap and Hawaiian shirts, khaki short pants and sandals, usually hanging out a few yards up from the water line talking to somebody or talking on his cellphone. He’s a big man, somewhat portly, a profile not to be ignored on the beach. We came to know him through a couple who befriended us at the Krystal in our earliest years who stay there every year the same time we do. This couple have been coming to Ixtapa longer than we have and came to know Benny from contracting fishing excursions with him. When he walks along in front of the Krystal he will usually come up to the palapa to say hi. We have gone fishing on his boats. He has provided guides for us to visit Petatlan and Troncones. He’s good conversation even if it’s small talk and he gives the impression he would get you anything in the world if you just ask. And pay cash — USD preferred.
Family man, entrepreneur, in his fifties now, Benny is the quintessential citizen of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo. His success in life comes from a universal quality of honest hard work. One looks up to and admires him as a solid guy. Someone who trades fair.
Benny measures his business cycle by the hundred days between late December and early April. When the amigos from the north spend their vacations. After that it’s all Mexicans and it gets quieter, Mexican tourists don’t tend to go fishing, then the summer rainy season comes. Nothing big happens in July, August. Some of the restaurants close for a month. Benny maintains his boats, books anything he can catch and prepares for the next 100 day season when he makes most of his money. He likes to get paid in cash, USD American dollars preferred, and he issues written receipts. Nothing fishy about Benny, not even his fishing business.
This is the tide of the vacation business of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo. We reside oceanside at high tide, around the middle of the hundred days. It’s hard to imagine what the place might be like when it’s lonely, though Roxanne and I comment that we enjoy it when the hotels are lull between peak occupancies. Not that it’s ever been crazy busy but some days are more densely intense than others at the pool and on the beach. It’s what resort hotels do, attract customers, and it is the Krystal’s credit to fill their rooms.
After 9/11 aviation travel changed, carriers changed air routes and customers became more nervous about flying outside the USA. There was a steady drop of American tourists year over year the decade after. The recession years didn’t seem to help build back the American guest contingent, though more Canadians seemed to take their places. During those years the currency exchange rate made Mexico a great bargain vacation, which it still remains. What has changed in eighteen years isn’t as evident by fewer caucasian binge vacationers among us, fewer fellow American winter break snowbirds, fewer honeymoons and fewer romantic escapes, and fewer family retreats from places in the USA. Whoever doesn’t go there anymore who used to go there doesn’t tell the rest of us why they would rather not come back. Newcomers from the USA seek assurances that all this gracious charm and hospitality is for real and maybe not a smooth cover up to get your money. The anglos are restless. The American president insults the country of Mexico and we whities hanging out at the beach on the far side of the border wall are placed in the awkward state of almost denial as we act as if the guy doesn’t exist and what he says we can unsay by our silence.
We who talk politics among ourselves seem to be of similar philosophies or we do not broach politics at all — part of the truce of vacation nations. This was true for us nortes during the Bush years, Obama years and more true than ever now. Even so, one does not want to mistakenly get into an argument with a stranger over Obamacare in the Krystal alberca. At vacation nation we set aside our differences and abide by raw naked manners and the rules of leisure however possible. You catch snatches of private conversations you think you hear on the beach or at restaurants outdoors, in the plaza, and you wonder if those people are those people. And if they are, what are they doing in Mexico? They are supposed to be America First so what’s their story?
None of our business. That’s the privacy and anonymity we bring with us to the palapa where we escape into our existential mode among thousands at the beach. Go for a walk. Under the afternoon sun the sand in the middle of the beach between the palapas and the water line is roasting hot and we run barefoot to the water. We walk left, towards the Bayview and Pacifica, into the crowds. There’s a parachute rider taking off into the sky. More girls from Ipanema. The sand at waters edge is spongy. We say hi to people we’ve met. An artist named Jorge sets up a card table under an umbrella painting miniature seascapes on 3×5 cards with his fingers. Down by the Pacifica the stream has broken through from the estuary to the sea. We take a dip in the gentler waves at this end of the bay. Walking back to the Krystal past a sand soccer match, a volleyball match and the launch place of the parachute and the jet skis for rent, watching the people, the walkers and the ones taking selfies, the sunbathers and waders in the sea, it impresses me how many of us are white.
The skins of the people on the beach are invariably brown from suntan, though there’s a significant preponderance of Mexicans in the mix. What I observe is the scores of people easy to guess as non-latinos, white Americans, Canadians or European looking visitors, and I see very few Africans — this past winter I counted them, and I saw nine black people I determined were there on vacation and not residents or workers from Ixtapa like the Tamale Lady, who might be Cuban, or Raphael with his purple face. Seven men and two women. I see fewer Asians, usually none. I hesitate to say even African American or Asian Americans because this is after all an international beach, they could be Canadian or Brazilian, or from Togo for all I know. There is an elder white gentleman we seem to see every year who looks very European who turned out to be from Argentina, and I thought I heard a couple speaking Afrikaans at the pool, and there’s a widening group of voices speaking Quebecois French, but this place doesn’t seem to be a destination for people of color except Latinos. And gringos. There is no discernible reason black people or asians should shun Ixtapa or feel unwelcomed. I report this with conviction. It just is.
My perceived decline in American vacationers is based on personal observations, no scientific demographic data or investigative pursuit. I told you from the outset I’ve got my biases and shortcomings and can’t claim any exclusivity for the truth just because I say so, or I say I saw something. But I trust my eyes and ears. It’s not a drastic decline, but the share of the vacation market is not rising with Americans, not even by attrition. Maybe it’s gotten around, Ixtapa is square — not cool, not hip — and Zihuatanejo is too old school, old fashioned. Among old time returnees the clientele more or less dies off. Among the steady stream of vacationers our age bracket who come to Mexico to retire in some way, after a fashion, indulging in leisure and escaping their own version of north american winter as part of the entitlement of the american dream, our bourgeois decadence and clauses in the social contracts enabling us graying gringos to temporarily relocate our lives to a hotel in paradise, some give up along the way, some move on, some bored, divorced maybe, or illness. They just don’t show up anymore.
Those who turn up every year reaffirm each others lives better than Christmas cards. We have been befriended and become friends with friendly people with simpatico these several years, people we’ve shared dinners and fishing excursions, field trips and countless taxi rides and become confidants whom we met at the palapas next door. Given my tendency to gossip, these friends would rather remain anonymous to this essay.
In general we represent a civil tribe of North Americans. Our decline in numbers is replaced by anglo Canadians, and more and more french Canadians, so the makeup of the gringo tourist market doesn’t look non-American at a glance. No more than the rest of the western world doesn’t look American in an after sort of fashion. The cast at teatro de la playa is recast every year with fewer Americans and more Canadians, all via the international airport where we are all required to present passports to enter Mexico. The Canadians seem to get off scott free with their political innuendos because they can have opinions about Donald Trump either way and not express the least sympathy for those irresponsible enough to let him seize power.
Call us Minnesota nice. In the land of Vacation Nation we tolerate satire and jolly folderol, as what else could be meant behind the commentary you hear from Canadians meant to be serious political advice and counsel, they must be joking.
Apart from turning every sports bar in Ixtapa — a bar with at least one flat screen TV — into hockey night, the Canadian influence in the vacation trade the past eighteen years is eclipsed by the emergence of participation by the middle class of Mexico.
This is the biggest change I have observed in the fifty six or so weeks I have lived at the Krystal hotel over eighteen years, the evolution of the Mexican middle class.
In the earlier years it seemed quaint to see a Mexican family or two, three generations or so congregated around pool umbrellas or under palapas together, or a latino honeymoon couple, or spouses with small children. I took it as a sign the Mexican society and economy were doing good if Mexicans could afford to take vacations at the Krystal. This condescending view of what I observed evolved years hence as more and more occupancy at the hotel were Mexicans, especially around the Constitution Day holiday three day weekend. Cars parked — nice cars, late models — all over the available curb space with license plates from Jalisco, Michoacan, Puebla and Mexico City. SUVs. Minivans. Young families. Young couples. Middle aged couples. Multi generations. I told myself what I was seeing were indicators of prosperity, and I approved.
It’s more than quaint now. It’s a target market at the core of the Krystal hotel and all the hotels of Ixtapa. They offer all-inclusive vacation packages to Mexican cities within a few hours transport on the Mexican highway system. Airlines like Interjet fly in from Mexico City. Chartered coach buses arrive at the hotel cul de sac. Walking around the pool after a swim last winter I took a look around and said to myself, man there’s a lot of Mexicans in Mexico.
Sometimes more than half the hotel guests are Mexican. They come and go in waves, three day spurts, mostly weekends. It’s not only a sign of the Mexican standard of living in general, it signifies an authentication of the Mexican vacation experience, an organic emergence of Mexican identity. For one thing it’s improved the playlists of the music played at the swimming pool with latino songs replacing tired classic rock — perhaps much to the chagrin of western Canadians, eh, but more Shakira for me. And if you don’t like Mexicans then what are you doing in Mexico?
On the beach the kids favor soccer balls to frisbees. There have always been Mexicans on the beach all the time mixing with the anglo travelers. The beach is public and the people who live here are Mexicans. Generally Mexicans who are not vendors or hotel employees keep to the stretches of beach in front of the old Carlos and Charlies and west beyond the massage cabanas, the grassy barrens and in front of the new condos, but they disperse evenly in front of the hotels and the Bayview all the way to the Pacifica where there is more public access along the estuary. The beach is wide except at the crescent corners, and in between can accommodate a thick crowd of citizens of Vacation Nation without collisions. We accidentally photobomb one another and end up in the background of somebody’s selfie. A song of Bruce Springsteen comes into my head, the girls in their summer clothes pass me by, and I’m enjoying seeing the flow of people along the ocean talking in tongues and not being able to guess from the way they are dressed which Mexicans are on their day off and live in town and which ones are guests at the hotels.
Not even by their Leonard Cohen style fedoras.
And not by cell phones. The biggest sign of prosperity the past decade in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo is the proliferation of smart phones. The entire culture jumped past land lines and CDs to pocket computers and Facebook in one generation and in a sense caught up sociologically with the entire world. Seems like there’s a lot of them wearing braces on their teeth.
How this bodes organically to the prosperity of Mexico matters to me because I like Mexico and want them to succeed as a people. It bothers me that the president of my country promulgates an attitude hostile to them, and I am grateful they don’t treat us with likewise contempt. If America is to be taken seriously in this world it is a great leap to ask the world to disregard the folly rants of cryptic memes like covfefe and to seek assurance from well meaning ambassadors like me and Roxanne.
From a Mexican perspective we might look quaint, us well-meaning Americans taking vacations and spending our decadent leisure money acting retired and relaxed along the ocean. Piquant. If they feel sorry for us they don’t condescend because if we are unhappy with our lives then it is a rich person’s problem disconnected to day shifts and night shifts and free time. We are not seen or judged by what we do the other 48 or so weeks of the year (unless we brag) and they just know us by how we behave on vacation.
If the Mexican vacationers resent us gringos, and I sense some of them do, they resist acting out. The worst effect is akin to something I experienced in Deep South Mississippi years ago, from white people who caught you associating in public with black people, a look in the eye like they’re looking right through you like you aren’t there at all. Most Mexicans keep away from grouping among the nortes, but some like to be bold and mix right in, spread the beach towels around on the sand amid the palapas and play MP3 music as loud as can get away with — fortunate when they have taste in good songs. When the gringos are in the minority there is no seismic shift in social dynamics and no palpable segregation. There is room for one and all. There is no prototypical Mexican tourist, they could be software engineers, retailers, doctors, skilled mechanics, who knows what professionals in their personal lives, just like us, only their Spanish is better and for that they have a leg up with the servants.
I have learned from people I have come to know in the hospitality profession of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo who would as much like to remain anonymous as our gringo friends, there are kinds of Mexican tourists who come from the cities and treat the local servants rudely and with disrespect. They are what we gringos might call yahoos. In Ixtapa Zihuatanejo and Petatlan they call them chilangos. It’s a demonym coined in Nahuatl to refer to outsiders. Specifically to our friends in the service industry it pertains to feeling treated like dirt by Mexican tourists from the city who act abusively superior.
I saw it once, a young woman who loudly ordered drinks at her palapa who harassed Jesus who was then a beach waiter by calling after him, “Joven, joven…” Until Jesus quietly and patiently and deliberately addressed her to the side of her lounge chair and humbled her as privately as he could, then brought her drinks. I later was not surprised to learn the term joven amounts to calling him “boy”. Jesus is nobody’s boy.
They say the chilangos don’t tip. You don’t hear the word gracias among them. That strikes me as too bad. If the long game marketing plan includes expanding the domestic market to replace and outlast the shrinking Americans, one hopes the locals don’t take a hit to their dignity and to their take home pay from their own people.
We have witnessed rude tourist behavior somewhere before and it is mortifying when the offending yahoo turns out to be an Ugly American. To my mind there is no excuse for bad manners. All I can do is set an example of civil conduct and fair trade and hope the chilango trend is a passing phase of immaturity.
I would be sad if this paradise were to somehow fall apart. I don’t believe in jinx and think I’m not superstitious when I recall that prophecy from that Eagles song, Call someplace paradise and kiss it good bye… but there is risk of unintended changes initiated by efforts to keep things from going wrong. Or even from being neutral, in an after sort of fashion, being careful not to get involved in things none of our business.
We see election posters and billboards but have no idea who these people are or what political views they represent. We have no interest in influencing the vote, we’re just glad they have a government of laws and voting democracy.
We are glad to witness progress and upward mobility. There is visible evidence of women participating in the hospitality workplace since the turn of this century. Along with the smart phone the emergence of female economic participation is the biggest social change I have seen in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo. For a macho culture that’s a big deal.
Zihuatanejo comes from the Nahuatl word Cuitlatecapan, meaning Land of Women. They called themselves Cuilatecs living in Cihuatlan. If their history survives it must be carefully guarded, or deeply buried. Maybe it was a matriarchal society. It’s said Isla Las Gatas was named for so-called cat sharks (sharks without teeth) that supposedly swim the beach waters there, but that could be a myth, I’ve seen no such fish. As myths go, the boulders of lava rock acting as a breakwater alongside the gray coral were supposedly lugged there by order of an ancient king who had them placed exactly there to provide beach privacy and calm waters for his wives to swim and bathe. Could be the place was originally called Island of Pussycats.
Colonial Spain used the bay as a trade base with the Phillipines but never treasured the port as seriously strategic, abandoning it with little regret when it was time to go. For a while there was a hardwood forest near the coast providing quality lumber for colonialist construction, and so the beach named Playa Madera means Wood Beach, where the lumber disembarked. In a similar funny story of colonial times a shipping galleon got wrecked in foul weather on the rocks trying to get to the harbor, and its cargo of fine clothes from the orient spilled into the sea and washed ashore on the beach they call Playa Ropa, or Clothes Beach.
The resident population of Zihuatanejo city has risen from about 5,000 people in 1996 to about 70,000 today. This is not a stagnant economy. Kids born the first year we visited are turning eighteen. What are they thinking? A Zihuatan who looks at his or her life in this world must see themselves in some kind of context where the main business of the town depends on an international clientele. Everybody near and far is touched by the hospitality trade. The inner economy, education system, governance and social contracts obscured in plain sight of the sunglassed tourist are the shabby details of Downtown Mexico with the garage door architecture. The hardware stores. Furniture stores. Elektra Appliances. Ropa. Zapatos. Comidas. Panaderias. Bancomer. Bus landmarks, nothing famous. It’s a functioning city not a failed state.
Here is where I worry about the dissonant messages my country sends the people of Mexico. Roxanne and I and friends I can vouch for go there to indulge in innocent pursuit of happiness, and we bring with us the baggage of our own standards. We are not there to enjoy slumming in the Third World. The rhetoric coming from Washington DC deliberately incites distrust and hostility. Paranoia. If we are warned that our lives are in danger it seems sensible to wonder why and how, and question whether it’s true somebody might want to do us in. From a Mexican point of view they must see us Americanos through a lens of close-up face slaps and slurs, and you worry about a tipping point where our credibility isn’t worth the tips. Our elected president attacks the character of Mexicans and economic well being of Mexico and threatens to corrupt our winter vacations.
One can only speculate why Donald Trump has it in for Mexico. Maybe it’s a grudge because he can’t get any property to build on, I don’t know, but there’s something there, as he might say.
He not only fails to see a strategic markup of prosperity to the country on our southern border, he seems to advocate for the opposite, sabotaging Mexico only makes sense if it actually gave benefit to America first, and it does not. A prosperous and thriving Mexico offers least incentive to sneak into the United States for wealth. Or for any reason. If there are no good reasons to escape Mexico there are no reasons to seek asylum in the USA, problem solved, no need to erect a wall to bar people — illicit commerce won’t stop at a wall. A wall tells Mexicans we don’t trust them as a race of people, we don’t value their work and don’t want them coming to visit or study. Telling Mexicans they must help pay for such a wall is to command subservience and indignity, like calling the servant boy. The whole issue of Mexican immigration in American politics is telling Mexicans they are unimportant and inferior and the wall is their symbolic dead end to North America. A punishment for being brown. An encasement to keep out the riffraff. In Donald Trump’s America we are a gated community, a fortress. Mexicans are invaders, and that makes us invaders too. If Mexicans are unwelcome in America then one wonders how precarious is the hospitality to Americans in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.
Last year two of my sisters joined us at the Krystal for a week and through Benny on the beach we hired a guide named Fernando to drive us up the coast to Troncones where Heather could horseback ride on the beach. Fernando proved to be an exceptional guide not only bringing us to a quiet beach cantina, arranging Heather to get a horse and us to rent boogie boards to ride the triple surf. We had a nice lunch. Fernando negotiated the check. He took us on a walk down the coastline to coves of swirling tidepools in the sand, coastal inlets within inlets of volcanic rock and perfect sand, where he pictured building a house facing the sea someday.
He was a talkative guy in his forties, spoke good english, who brought a book with him for during down time, which didn’t happen much with us that day. Among his guiding lights imparted to us that day Fernando advised us to gargalas — gargle — every day with sea salt water to build natural immunity to the throat and sinuses.
He innocently flirted with my sisters, made a joke about catch and release. He was married and had to remember to bring home the tamales that night for his wife because his wife was in charge of the Baby Jesus Tamale Night this year, and it was tomorrow. Every year among extended family and friends there is a celebration dinner of tamales, with cake for dessert, and in the cake is baked a little Baby Jesus figurine. Whoever gets the Baby Jesus in their slice of cake is supposed to provide tomales for the dinner the next year. After our day trip he was supposed to pick up the tamales, so when he might flirt a little with Meaghan or Heather they would remind him to pick up the tamales.
At the beach he handed me a smooth black rock and told me to hold it in my palm. Then clench the rock tight. He said whenever I felt aggravation to channel my negative energy into the rock in my fist. Then throw the rock into the sea. Gone will be the source of aggravation.
Later he came up with two more stones from the beach. They were they size and smoothness of the hot rocks the masajistas apply to your back. He placed one in each of my hand and told me when I want something, desire something more than anything, like a house on the beach or something, squeeze the two stones and think of your desire. Then place the stones in the sun to get hot. One day your desire will come true.
He talked about his son, a young adult who lived in Guadalajara, and said it was more healthy for a seedling to grow away from the shadow of the big tree.
He told me he thought Donald Trump would be a good thing for my country. I asked why he thought that and he offered a bet, $100 USD that I would be better off a year from then when we talked again. I would not shake on the bet because I refused to bet against myself, but I wanted to know why he thought Donald Trump would possibly be good. He was vague and cryptic and kept referring to his proposed bet.
Troncones is a tiny town that extends a long way up the beach in little beach haciendas occupied by vacationers and expatriates who prefer to get away from the crowds in the towns and like a more reclusive experience. It appeals to me and Roxanne at a certain level, like actually living in a palapa, and we are told the rent of one of these places is affordable, but it seems too remote and far off for us, so dependent on urban conveniences like a variety of restaurants.
On the highway back to Ixtapa Fernando stopped at a roadside stand and makes us buy three ten pound sacks of crystaline sea salt, which cost ten pesos each, about a buck and a half. He reminds us to gargalar daily, and we figure it’s a small nod to the local economy.
As he drives he tells a joke. A priest and a taxi driver are killed in a car crash and when they get to heaven the archangel sends the taxi driver directly up to hang out with God and assigns the priest to desk duty in the office. The priest argues, I am a priest and he is a taxi driver, why aren’t I up there with God? The angel replied, the taxi driver got more people to pray.
Fernando dropped us at the Krystal and we tipped him. We reminded him to pick up the tamales. As soon as he was out of earshot and sometimes to this day my sisters sing about him, there was something in the air that night, the moon was bright, Fernando… the song by Abba. I instead tend to think of that song by Lady Gaga that goes, don’t call my name, Fernando… either way he’ll always be remembered fondly.
Our first day at the Krystal this year on our first walk we found Benny at the beach. He looked pretty good, maybe a little trimmer. A little more serious. He told us that past November his stepson and captain of his big boat passed away, Vicente. Some kind of blocked colon. Went to the hospital and they couldn’t save him. Left a wife and two young kids. He was Benny’s stepson by virtue of Benny taking Vicente in as a boy, orphaned, and raising him as his son. He was Benny’s captain. Telling the story evoked deep sadness. We embraced Benny, sorry for his loss. We barely knew Vicente, having run into him at the pier and the one time we went fishing with a group on the big boat, so we commiserated with Benny, who said now he was looking after Vicente’s widow and children. He thanked us for our sympathy and reminded us if we wanted go fishing, or just a boat ride to look for whales and dolphins, or take another day trip to Troncones he would set it up.
Then he told us that Fernando the guide passed away in December from stomach cancer.
That news really blew us away. One of those things where you say he looked, he seemed so healthy. I thought about his therapy for anger, a stone’s throw into the sea. When we took our dip in the surf we gargled, like a toast. To Fernando. I thought about if I had taken his bet I would have owed him $100. USD.
I am better off now than I was a year ago, statistically speaking, by any objective measure. And a few subjectives too. All in spite of Donald Trump. And the good for America Fernando insinuated, I cannot still figure out what he meant and only hope he saw something good coming through America the next few years motivated by the presence of Trump, not necessarily by Trump’s decree. One hopes for a better world. One wonders if Fernando was prescient enough to see progressions of democracy beyond our frustrating times, aggravation hurled into the sea. Our deepest wishes baking in the sun.
Benny has told us he learned English when he was young because he observed that anybody who was making money knew English. Anabel de los Santos agrees. She is one of the savant servants at the Krystal restaurants. Maybe fifteen years ago she broke in as one of the beach waiters who hustle back and forth serving food and drink to the palapas, the first woman stationed on the beach in what had always been a crew of all guys like Jesus. Jesus mentored her. It’s hard shlepping drinks in the sand all day — hard enough serving food and drink on tile and hardwood floors, it takes legs to work the beach — and the palapa people can be demanding. With a big moon faced smile she tutored my Spanish and ran our tab up in Negra Modelos by the ice bucket cubos for years, making conversation back and forth in Spanish and English, and she has become our best confidante in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.
Even so, Anabel is both our best insight into the soul of Mexico and most worthy of privacy. We are proud that she has befriended us, and thus protective of her confidence. Beyond the call of duty, as it were, that is beyond her role at the hotel she has extended her life to us, welcomed us to her home, dined with us in town, shown us Playa Larga, brought us to her grandson’s birthday party one night at Coacoyul and introduced us to her family and friends with gracious hospitality that transcends vacation leisure time in a foreign country and makes us feel more than honored guests but trusted kin. What I share in this essay respects Anabel so much as to reveal as much as one can her good examples without embarrassing her to the world.
She is now a senior waiter at the hotel restaurant, 3 to 11, the dinner shift. The food at the Krystal is very very good and features a delicious buffet along with a standard menu. With a trend towards all-inclusive price bundling the restaurants serve a captive clientele with an accent on service at the tables, and Anabel leads her team in etiquette and efficiency. People ask for her tables by name. She’s a pro. Several women now work as waiters, bussers and chefs at the hotels and restaurants these days, from the early years we would come and everywhere the waiters were men except two part-timers who worked the pool deck, Gloria and Marta, and Anabel who worked the beach, and once upon a time Anabel was new.
She knew English. She indulged and tutored my Spanish. We learned she was a single mom with four kids. One kid has special needs. She is a grandma. She gets one day off a week. Lately, the last few years, she has a pareja, boyfriend Jose who speaks virtually no English but helps out around the house. Today two of her sons, Ariel and Uriel, are young adults, the former entering the post-school workforce and the younger completing high school. They’re a generation looking for something to do. The daughter Suke has a toddler to raise in addition to completing vocational education. The whole family raises Jorvy (pronounced Jorby) and everyone looks after big brother Brandon, who has severe cerebral palsy.
Anabel started working at the Krystal in the traditional women’s job of housekeeping, una camarista, cleaning rooms and making beds. The Krystal offers English classes for its employees and Anabel took the lessons with the idea of becoming a waiter and making more money. She hopes her kids learn more English so they can too. Every generation hopes its children do better in this world than we do, it’s universal — look at us Americans, doing so well as it is — and we all look at Jorvy’s generation emerging and wonder what his future might unfold in this town.
Ariel is a hipster skateboarder with an iPhone who likes Bob Dylan and works at the Krystal in the kitchen. He says he wants to study mechanics and move to Jalisco, he has no interest in Mexico City. He and I have become email pen pals and correspond a few times a year. He and Roxanne are friends on Facebook. He reminds me of past teenagers I have known who want to break free of their old home towns and live somewhere cooler. Uriel is more obscure to me, the younger brother, handsome like Ariel, at school a lot, says he wants to study dance.
The daughter Suke is shy and virtually unknowable, speaks no English at all and lacks her mother’s tendency to tutor my Spanish since she has no English to fall back on to explain. We hear she’s enrolled in a camarista academy.
At the Krystal the one called Gloria is also now a senior restaurant waiter, a counterpart to Jesus on the breakfast lunch shift — he says, Jesus and Gloria, we are the same. The other woman who worked the pool deck, Marta, was last seen operating a kind of pop-up gift shop on the plaza near the basketball court in Zihuatanejo.
Recent years have seen a boom in young women serving as waiters and greeters at the restaurants. Kids are coming of age and taking jobs in hospitality. Women are concierges, managers and desk clerks, not just cleaners. The jobs you do not see women doing are security guards and taxi drivers. Bartenders and lifeguards. Guides.
Jesus Calderon is the standout alpha male of the Krystal waiters. He has been there longer than we have been coming to the Krystal. We found his style severe and almost formal for a beach resort but he was precise and very efficient, and he too sometimes would tutor my Spanish and humor me. He has critical eyes and projects a far awareness of space and surroundings. We used to think he was giving us the stink eye, or at least the hairy eyeball, that he didn’t trust us for some reason, maybe even didn’t like us the first few years, he was just treating us well to be professional. We got to know him a little when we engaged him in conversation, learned he has a little cattle ranch outside of town a few miles, eight cows, all dry for the winter, where he goes and rides his horses on his days off, a caballero, a vaquero. At work he is a consummate professional and idealized leader. He is the local union rep, and without prying into his personal business would guess his influence has shaped the workplace in a positive way for his coworkers and the industry as a whole. I was out of earshot the time Jesus tactfully reprimanded the young woman who called him joven, and my Spanish is too poor to have understood his words word for word, but he must have said something elegantly persuasive, she instantly changed her manners. He mentored Anabel. In many ways Jesus embodies the soul of the Krystal and the hospitality of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.
We keep doing the same thing over and over expecting the same result. That’s the beauty of going there year after year, we don’t care if it gets different. It’s like the sunset, it comes around every day but we stick around to watch. At its cloudless it always looks the same red ball and we still can’t look away. When it’s cloudy it gets all pink and purple and unpredictable. Then it gradually gets dark.
That last walk of the day to symbolically kick the wall, the last dip in the sea and a gargle for Fernando, watching Raphael’s crew pack their parachutes, the speedboat guys pull in their ropes or make one last run pulling the big wiener across the bay where at least one of the five people riding it in lifejackets deliberately falls off so they have to stop, remount and start over and everybody gets a swim. Fishermen come out to cast their nets. Pelicans dive for food just beyond the breakers. Clamdiggers try their best to unearth something from the mud with their hands as the tide ebbs away. The guys who rent the jet skis load them up on their two wheel trailers to haul them to where they lock them up for the night. The last volleyball match of the day whistles done. The sun not so hot, the little kids make one last run into the edges of the waves. It’s time to dig out the dad they buried up to his chin. The lounge chairs get stacked at the Pacifica, arrayed in neat empty rows at the Bayview, and the canvas tent palapas at the Barcelo get unstruck, and the umbrellas collapse at the Sunscape Dorado. The stragglers straggle.
The girl from Ipanema in her summer clothes poses for a picture holding the big red sun as a beach ball in her hands.
Maybe one last beer — or a water with a lime, we don’t drink as much beer as we used to. Maybe one more dip in the pool — it’s still at least 82 degrees out there. The sun dips below the brim of the palm leaves of the palapa. We are suntanned in spite of all shady precautions, the suns rays bounce up off the sand and the sea and they get us anyway. Down the line several palapas away a Mexican family has commissioned one of the itinerant Mexican cowboy bands to stop and play a set of songs, and from a distance they sound almost like a polka band without a tuba.
We stay for the sunset. Maybe it’s a classic, or maybe it’s a bust, either way we celebrate another beautiful day. The booze cruise catamaran called the Picante like the signature of Picasso sails by and we wave at them but nobody ever waves back, why would they be looking at us when there’s a sunset out there? Sail on, get out of our way from looking at the sun descend next to the rock islands off the bay, islands so blond and stoic from the distance which up close are whitewashed with bird poop, which you learn on the booze cruise.
Maybe this sunset we witness the green flash.
We pack up our towels and books and sandals and beach bag and t-shirt and hat and our litter and arrange our lounge chairs the way we found them and vacate the palapa for any twilight stragglers who come after us. Stop at the towel bar to exchange for fresh ones for tomorrow. Ride the elevator to our room to change clothes to go to dinner.
There are at least a dozen good restaurants or cantinas within walking distance of the Krystal in Ixtapa, maybe two dozen. We have our favorites among the most popular and would like to try the obscure ones some time just to get out of our routine except our favorites treat us so well. Even with the prevalence of hotels offering all-inclusive dining the competitive restaurant trade seems to be flourishing.
Sometimes we’ll go out with our palapa friends. They like to dine in Zihuatanejo and make reservations through the concierge and we’ll take taxis to places we like in town. At a place called Il Mare they serve Mediterranean style dinners at a tiered dining room of balconies at the top of the hill overlooking Playa Ropa, the entire city surrounding the bay lit up at night. Our friends like to reserve a table on the beach at Daniels, right in town, for chicken or mahi mahi. There’s a place called Coconuts where the ambience is dining in a central courtyard of a hacienda. An out of the way place with excellent shrimp is called Letty’s, located behind the embarcadero by the fishing boat marina. A place called Bandito’s specializes in molcojate, like a ratatouille served in an iron kettle. And no one serves red snapper — huachinango a ajo — better than Casa Elvira.
In Ixtapa within walking distance of the Krystal and all grouped around the commercial blocks we like El Camaron Azul, the Blue Shrimp, for just about anything seafood on the menu. Toscano’s and Emilio’s specialize in Italian food — Toscano has the best pizza and lasagna and Emilio the best ribs, a huge rack of which must be shared, and same with their salads. Ruben’s makes malt shop hamburgers and fries and features New Zealand cheese. The General’s is a sports bar offering fajitas, pizzas and pub fare. A place called Deborah’s leans into perfection in every item on her menu. For genuine Mexican dishes there are several places but Roxanne’s and my favorite is formally called Los Bigotes de Zapata, Zapata’s Mustache, but is better known as Martin’s, with mole sauce and green sauce so good on their enchiladas it’s worth getting one of each — and they serve a nice inexpensive breakfast too. Away a little off to the side of the boulevard on the way to Playa Linda past Emilio’s is the Ixtapa Palace hotel, with its restaurant Tiburon serving red snapper in vera cruz sauce. And the other way from the commercial district alone along the boulevard to the marina stands Soleiado, a boutique Mediterranean cuisine of wrought iron atmosphere where a French guy sings on the patio. The marina restaurants are all right if more expensive and a little pretentious as if they conveyed a view like Il Mare from the top of Playa Ropa, though you can eyeball some high moneyed yachts.
All these places serve open air, some more sheltered than others. Depending on tastes there are biker style bars, video bars, country and classic rock bars, all serving good pub fare. There are places opening and closing every year Roxanne and I have not found yet, both in the commercial district of Ixtapa and in the heart of Zihuatanejo central, that are good places to eat no doubt, so we tell ourselves to keep looking for new places for dinner.
Soleiado serves the best Bolognese spaghetti sauce anywhere. Wherever I travel if I’m uncertain what to eat off a menu where nothing seems to appeal to my appetite my default choice is spaghetti or linguini Bolognese. I have sampled Bolognese sauce in Prague, London, Paris, Rome, Geneva, Interlachen, Zermatt, Venice, Madrid, Minneapolis of course and various other cities in the USA, and Ixtapa, and the Soleiado recipe is the best. Not too bad is the sauce at Toscano, the place for pizza and lasagna. Maybe second best I ever had was the one in Prague, or maybe I was just extraordinarily hungry.
Soleiado’s recipe was said to be the recipe of the aunt of one of the founders, Caroline. She and her husband Francesco established the place in the late 1990s, named it after a word for sunshine. Legend says she was a show dancer and he was a chef at Club Med up the coast a few miles towards Playa Linda. She was from Montreal, he was from Paris. They fell in love. They conceived a dream, a fine dining restaurant in Ixtapa. I also loved their pork tenderloin Nicoise. The place was always full to capacity from six to nine. Caroline was always there, greeting her guests at every table, never tiring to talk about their entrepreneurship, Francesco’s genius in the kitchen, their young daughter, or to listen to compliments about the food or the sunny decor. Sometimes it seemed people vied for Caroline’s affections. Francesco was always there too in the kitchen mainly in his white chef suit. He was darkly handsome and wore his black hair in a long braid down his back. He played smooth jazz on the hi-fi.
One terrible night Roxanne and I went there late after calling home to our daughter from a pay phone using a prepaid phone card, more than ten years ago. We learned that night Michel our daughter might have ovarian cancer and we staggered to Soleiado to comfort ourselves with a nightcap of a couple of shots of Bailey’s and a slice of their famously delicious pecan pie. Francesco saw me crying and came to our table to console me. I was drunk and deeply sad, and I still recall how he embraced my shoulders and nearly wept himself. I wrote him a letter to thank him for that and to tell him Michel did not have cancer after all but an operable condition from which she fully recovered.
In the years after that things changed at Soleiado. Francesco and Caroline broke up. First Francesco was said to have gone back to Montreal to chef at a restaurant to supplement their income due to a drop in business in Ixtapa due to the recession. Then Caroline reported sending their teenage daughter to school in Montreal to be with relatives. Then it was rumored Francesco took off for Paris. Then the daughter’s health was reported to be precarious. The next year Caroline herself had lost a lot of weight and didn’t look well. Then she was gone. A new guy, another Frenchman and an American henchman managed the place. Little else changed. The Frenchman bought the place, they say, and now he shmoozes the guests. The cuisine remains boutique though the menu has changed somewhat. They still make Bolognese according to Caroline’s aunt Marie, and still serve pecan pie. They’ve brought on a singer of songs in French and installed a ten foot high Eiffel Tower that lights up with dazzle at night out front towards the boulevard.
I grieve in a way for Caroline and Francesco. None of the old staff seems to know what happened to them. Or they aren’t saying. Theirs was a sunny dream realized and then it dissolved in a cloudy drizzle. I wondered what it might have been like to be two relatively sophisticated parents of a teenage girl in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo, what social dilemmas they may have faced. How would we have raised our kids if we lived there?
We don’t know. It’s a different paradigm from what we’re used to I’m sure. Did the daughter have friends she was torn away from? Have they all found happiness again? Maybe I’ve interpreted their story wrong, put the wrong spin on it. It’s hard to believe credible people who find romance in paradise might lose it and naive to think it might all be part of somebody’s master plan to get in and get out.
Is this Casablanca 1942 deja vu? Hardly. Not Bladerunner either. We come down here for vacation not to play social worker, not to be missionaries, not to ascribe to investigative journalism, and not to spy. Not to judge.
Anabel’s daughter got knocked up at barely fifteen. Anabel herself has four kids and I’m not privy to the circumstances of their fatherhood. It’s all I need to know because what I perceive askance from my American cultural lens presents me with situations I’m not supposed to fix. Like the prayer for serenity asks to accept things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, wisdom to know the difference, serenity requires the bliss of curiosity to seek out the distinctions and divide what you find. My upbringing says it’s some emblem of being poor Mexicans but my education tells me there’s more to the human condition than building walls will ever solve. It may or may not be interesting to know that Anabel and all of her family and friends, Jesus or anyone like Benny or Fernando, of all the people we know down there, nobody wants to emigrate to the United States.
They don’t complain. Yes, asides about bad tippers and chilangos, but not about life. Deep in their dark eyes there may be signs of pain and sadness, and in the severe faces of those like Janeth the pensiveness of truth, but the people of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo don’t wear discontent on their sleeves. They are serene.
It’s nice to go somewhere for a winter vacation where there’s no civic tension to distract from the perfect beach weather. We don’t need the aggravation of the American state department telling the world Mexico is as dangerous as Syria.
One time on the beach a few years ago we encountered a squad of five or six soldiers in black battle dress with helmets and vests on patrol carrying machine guns. It created a quiet stir among the palapa anglos. It reminded Roxanne and me of routine patrols we saw on the plaza of St Michel in front of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, and under the Eiffel Tower, a sign of the times. More theater of the playa.
We have friends, acquaintances and family who tell us straight up they would never go to Mexico because they believe it’s way too dangerous. They worry about our safety and tell us to check in when we get back. They decline our invitations to join us and prefer to winter within the American borders, places like Arizona and Florida, and of course Hawaii. Most of them just don’t want to leave America at all. It’s cool. America has a lot to offer Americans. Overall the rest of the world would like to have what America offers. They would like to have it in their own world. And meanwhile, fewer Americans come to Ixtapa Zihuatanejo because they are chicken.
Sometimes when we are out walking the boulevard on the main of Ixtapa between the beach hotels and condos and the commercial blocks we see a military truck go by with soldiers in the back like the ones on the beach. Some of them wear ski masks like urban guerrillas, and it makes the look like the bad guys, but we suppose they don’t want to be identified for reasons to avoid retribution. It makes for dinner conversation among us northern tourists, whether we should worry more about our safety, there might be something going on underneath we aren’t supposed to know about. I’ll concede the visibility of armed federal troops might be intentional, to show we are being safely guarded. We should feel protected. A contingent of such troops regularly bunks at one of the backstreet off-beach hotels and conducts training from there, so it seems normal to see them on patrol on the boulevard in and out of Ixtapa. On our field trips we’ve seen them set up check points on the open highway. There’s nothing unusual here we would not expect to see. We remind ourselves we are in Mexico, a land famed for banditos and corruption, so to counter that kind of reputation takes a lot of charm while addressing the actual crimes. Our palapa friends and other senior vacationers we engage say they feel generally safe, and everybody draws their limits to where they might go and where they might avoid at what time of day or night — just as people do at home.
Night life in Ixtapa escapes me and Roxanne. We don’t hang out and party all night long, so we can’t really say where people do that. Our evenings end usually after dinner. We are elders now, seniors, and a long day at the beach and a delicious meal with wine, beer or margaritas makes us sleepy.
There is a disco called Christine next door to the Krystal. We went there one time to get a feel for the night life. The sound system is fantasic. We were there too early, around nine or ten, and the crowd was sparse. Tired, we left before the party really got started, around midnight. A lot of the local young people go there after work. There is nightlife, but we’re just too old and tired to stay up all night.
The commercial zone of Ixtapa is set up like a semi-grid of small strip mall installations around a plaza fountain which no longer runs water and a fenced off block of ruins of concrete from something nobody remembers used to be there that may have either burned down or collapsed from an earthquake but hasn’t ever been redeveloped. Other than that block of fenced rubble the walk through the commercial district is blightless. Not exactly a grid of streets and not a maze, the passways through this array of strip mall and plazas constitute contiguous clean well lighted places. There are boutique shops for clothes, jewelry, shoes and ceramics. Gelato. Farmacias. Grocery store almost big enough to be a supermarket. On the far end beyond the little cantinas the flea market beckons. Lots of good restaurants.
There were only two American restaurant chain brands operating in Ixtapa, Domino’s pizza and Subway sandwiches. I swear there was once a KFC but nobody will back me up on that. Now there is a new Starbuck’s at the hotel Krystal. No Hard Rock Cafe. No Applebee’s.
Otherwise the food trade is original and credibly local. Toscano’s serves good Italian and is owned and run by old man Toscano who spends evenings drinking red wine at the bar and smoking cigarettes. He has been known to get crabby with street performers who don’t ask special permission to entertain on his side of the plaza. He is either too far in the bag by the time we arrive for dinner or just not chummy, but he’ll at least raise a glass to us if we catch his eye, and he has an eye for repeat customers. The menu shows a drawn map of the city of Florence a few hundred years ago, still like it today. Two years ago his son hung around the place. A younger guy in Tommy Bahama maybe pushing fifty, he engaged us one evening to shmooze and introduce himself as the boss’s son who came up from Acapulco to help the old man and eventually take over the business.
The younger Toscano had plans. Ixtapa had to liven up, jiven up, get a reputation as an all year spring break destination to attract the fun seeking young generation. He said the place was too geriatric, like his dad. He called Zihuatanejo’s rejection of the cruise liner pier the dumbest decision he ever heard. The new casino was set to open any day, and he looked forward to it as a good sign. The next year he was gone, sent packing back to Acapulco by his old man, who apparently didn’t like his ideas.
The casino did open, after we had gone home for the season. Last year we walked through. Lit up with glam LED lights and staffed by mannered models in casual tuxedos and pulsating with noises of gaming machines and dance pop, it reminded me of a tiny version of Mystic Lake back home. Behind a glass door the blackjack tables were busiest and the only place one could smoke. We walked through, checked it out and walked out without playing. Purely a reconnaissance mission. We don’t gamble — or game — and don’t get a thrill from slots. I personally find casinos depressing places of angst and desperation, so I didn’t see anything positive coming from this new Ixtapa casino except the usual bump in local revenue and jobs. It seemed reassuring the place wasn’t very crowded for its first full season.
This year it was closed. More reassuring yet. Orange fliers fastened on every door and exit — closed by order of the federal police. Ask around and finally somebody says it’s because of too many robberies. We walked by on our way to the hotel from dinner at the Ixtapa Palace and for some reason there were four black and white policia federale SUVs parked empty in the casino parking lot like they were having a meeting inside. Like there was an American doughnut shop nearby, Emilio’s bakery. I thought about the stanzas of Townes Van Zandt, “All the federales say they could’ve had him any day, they just let him get away out of kindness I suppose.”
Though I say I’m not superstitious or believe in jinx, the casino seemed to be bad juju for Ixtapa, introduced a corrupt element to the community. And though I say I’m liberal and tolerant of some types of sketchy behavior (like smoking) seen as harmless fun, I would rather not see gaming in Ixtapa to liven up and jiven up the atmosphere, or attract what they call in Minnesota some of that blue hair money. (Elders don’t dye their hair silver blue anymore but the idiom lives on at Mystic Lake.)
It’s enough for us to choose a good sit down dinner. The rival of Soleiado for elegance up the boulevard is Deborah’s, and Deborah is the successor of Caroline as the grand hostess. Deborah exudes exactness in her entire operation. Each dish has its own ultra quality. Never a letdown or a mistake. She walks among the guests asking if everything tasted all right and basks in all the compliments. She’s been at this longer than we’ve been coming down, and now she is the premier restaurateur of Ixtapa. We all think she’s Canadian because her menus of language are coded with the red maple leaf for English and not the stars and stripes, she looks anglo though her Spanish is clear and precise. She has a haughty edge about her. Suffers no fools. Years ago seemed reluctant to shmooze as if she was too busy. Used to have her place tucked back behind the commercial shops like Martin’s, barely a patio with an awning and a pergola. It was called Mama Norma and Deborah’s then, after Deborah’s mentor and longtime proprietor known as Mama Norma, who schooled Deborah in her recipes. Deborah carried on after Mama Norma passed away. Her current iteration is the site of a place once called the Hacienda, another place that folded when the grand old lady who owned it retired, where Deborah now runs her flagship restaurant named for herself.
She is also know to own a small cantina on the boulevard strip called Chili Beans and is rumored to own a big piece of the Blue Shrimp. And her old location has been renamed Mama Norma’s and opened under apparently new management with Italian cuisine — yes, the spaghetti Bolognese is good — and Deborah denies she owns it but there are signs she is behind the scenes, like the name Mama Norma’s.
In truth Deborah has kept up the standards of restaurant quality in Ixtapa at a good price these many years. They say it was she who discovered the talents of a shy young chef named Lalo at the Blue Shrimp, where he composed his signature flambee shrimp, mushroom, cheese and liquor dish that originated as Lalo’s Shrimp and has since mutated everywhere in high quality knockoff form as Ixtapa Shrimp, seen prepared in flames at tables at all the fancy places. Deborah has her own chef who specializes, a woman at that, and puts on a dramatic show while she mixes the ingredients and incites the flame. Lalo was cute and shy, concentrated on the cooking, putting ingredients together as if he were experimenting, just now making it up, almost in awe of the flame he created.
Roxanne and I and our palapa and beach friends followed Lalo from his Blue Shrimp days and found him with his own place operating a kitchen out back in a section of an old hotel deep into the old plaza with a patio setting of a few tables under umbrellas and an awning, which he called Lalo’s House. He kept the tables occupied for a few years and taught some younger guys how to make the shrimp mushroom gravy with the three cheeses, just the right dash of English sauce (Worcerster sauce — no Mexican I’ve met tries to say it) and white wine and brandy. Shy and still cute, Lalo reluctantly learned to shmooze like a restaurateur rock star when his fans would get the waiters to lure him out of the sheltered workshop of his kitchen to garner applause for their meals, and sometimes we could coax him out to either prepare our shrimp or supervise a protege.
More or less across the boulevard within view of the Krystal, on the second floor of the strip of buildings above a convenience store and a farmacia, used to be a place called the Lobster House. A grand staircase led upstairs from the sidewalk and there was always a guy out front trying to get people to go up there for lobster but nobody seemed to trust him and looking up from the street it never looked like anybody ever ate their. Roxanne is allergic to lobster so we never went up there once.
Then one year the Lobster House was renamed the House of Lalo. We ascended the grand staircase and were seated at a table on a balcony looking at the jungle wildlife preserve behind the boulevard looking towards the hotel, and it was a serene juxtaposition. He had a few guests. I looked around and the place was rather elegant with leather and carved wood. A Spanish ceiling. He welcomed us with awkward pride, long since being shy with those of us who followed his career and his cuisine. It was a one year trial, he told us. We had a great dinner. It looked as if the House of Lalo would take off. It got a good review in TripAdvisor. It was only due that Lalo have his own house.
The next year, last year, he was back on the patio at the back of the plaza cooking out of the kitchen at the old hotel. The food was good but Lalo didn’t seem with it. Barely going through the motions of hospitality. He seemed depressed. His staff said the old Lobster House was too much to manage, and they had trouble getting customers to go up the stairs — no elevator. Then we learned Lalo’s best friend had died the summer before in a car accident on the highway to Acapulco. We of course shared our condolences and he shrugged.
This year by the time Roxanne and I showed up Lalo’s patio was out of business. Our friends said the week before they had gone to eat there, and it was open, but Lalo was nowhere to be seen, not even in the kitchen. They asked about him and eventually one of the waiters took our friends to a room at the old hotel where Lalo was in bed looking dire. Said he couldn’t get out of bed. Had a set of crutches propped against the wall. We learned later from the grapevine Lalo had diabetes and a drinking problem. We heard he suffered depression as a result of a car crash while he was drinking and driving that killed a passenger. Just two days before we left for home we learned through our friends who learned it from a waiter at Chili Beans Lalo died of heart failure. The funeral was the next day, done before any of us knew, so we did not attend.
His flambee shrimp with three cheeses, mushrooms and gravy lives on, even as a version offered at the General’s sports bar, which they call the General’s Shrimp.
The General may be the most universally beloved proprietor in all of Ixtapa. Named Genaro, he got his nickname from Frank, the proprietor of another popular bar and restaurant where Genaro worked as chief of staff and de facto manager. His energetic command of the service staff, the kitchen and the bar got him nicknamed the General. His affable personality and fluent English ushered customers in and the service attitudes he instilled in the waiters kept people coming back multiple times during their vacations, so Frank’s enjoyed overflow business in that era.
We first met Genaro when he worked for Frank’s. Roxanne’s sister and her late husband used to go to Ixtapa too and stay at a place called Las Brisas, on a beach of its own around the cliffs from Pacifica, and one year our times in Mexico overlapped. They invited us to go with another couple they knew on a field trip up the coast to Troncones to see what it was like, guided by a guy they met at Frank’s they referred to as Gordo, whose name turned out to be Genaro.
He’s round and pudgy with a close cropped haircut, chubby cheeks and it was understandable he might answer to Gordo, but from the outset of meeting him early that morning in the parking lot near Frank’s where we climbed inside his van, there was something smartly charismatic about him that promoted him past deserving the sort of nickname bullies bestow on buffoons. So I agreed to call him General because that is what he likes to be called.
It was our first trip to Troncones, and he showed us a great time. Brought boogie boards for us to try the triple surf. Made sure we had shelter and beer. Brought us to a welcoming roadside cantina for lunch platters of seafood at a tiny nearby town. Everywhere he entertained us he assured our trust and comfort. I think he had a crush on Roxanne. It was a memorable excursion because we all had fun, everything went right and we all got to see a piece of Mexico outside the resort zone. We tipped big.
On our way back to Ixtapa we stopped at Genaro’s house in a little flat, dusty town up the road from Playa Linda, so he could shower and change clothes to go to work that night at Frank’s. We met his young wife (don’t stare at her tits, he quipped) and two little daughters — none of whom spoke English, but it was okay. I babbled Spanish.
On the ride back to Frank’s I rode shotgun and asked how he spoke English so well. Cruising the narrow streets between the concrete houses like his with rebar optimistically pointed up on the roof corners and rusty corrugated steel roofs, chickens in the dusty yards, he pointed to a house behind and then to the road ahead and described how one day he kissed his mama good bye when he was a teenager and climbed aboard a truck with a bunch of other guys recruited from the area who rode all the way up to Colorado to work in a tortilla factory. He lived five some years in the United States working in the restaurant business, eventually ending up in Wisconsin where he fell in love with the Green Bay Packers and sharp cheddar cheese.
Supposedly he was all legal, documented, but he eventually came home anyway and with some friends started up a restaurant in Zihuatanejo called Three Amigos. It became successful but Genaro felt forced out as the fourth amigo, so he went around managing other restaurants until he got recruited by Frank to keep a tight handle on his operations while Frank experimented with running a ju jitsu dojo and a dirt bike rental and Frank’s wife opened a purse shop. Frank basically hung out at his namesake bar to shmooze the customers while the General ran the show.
Soon after our trip to Troncones Frank and Genaro had a falling out. Frank found out he was moonlighting as a tour guide and didn’t like Genaro making money on the side and not cutting him in on it. Frank got a sketchy reputation in the community for rumors about stiffing his workers, gouging his patrons with an inflated exchange rate on payments in American cash, and for allegedly cheating the Sail Fest charity out of the proceeds of a benefit dance hall event held in his dojo. The General has never contributed to these rumors and allegations. Frank is an Italian-Canadian expatriate married to a Mexican, which is how he can own his business license, he told me — he has to put it in the name of his young son. Hipsterly handsome with long hair worn up in a man bun long before it became a craze, he has his own following among bikers and would be renegades who are attracted to Frank’s shady reputation as a haven for wannabe misfits — that and constant two-for-one Dos Equis. He and his lovely, vivacious wife have been seen having spats in the back room. They are both said to have fits and tantrums at the staff in front of customers. Yet the place has a loyal following of quasi-expatriates and ex-patriots. Maybe it’s all talk. And the food is not that great. Asi asi.
Still, they fired Genaro, or maybe Genaro quit, he doesn’t say. He turned up fronting the cantina called Chili Beans on the boulevard, where again he kept the chairs full and supervised a clean well lighted operation.
A few years of this and a couple of Canadian entrepreneurs approached him to be partners in his own bar. They bought a failing restaurant at the edge of the plaza next to one side of the ruined square, fixed it up and renamed it The General’s. It features sports jerseys, sweaters and posters and memorabilia from teams famous and obscure all over the ceilings and walls where there are no TV screens. There are TV screens — gigantic, big and medium — everywhere — fed by satellite feeds from games played all over the world, but mostly North America. Mostly the TVs show NHL hockey, almost always a Canadian team, or American college hockey. Sometimes a college basketball game, usually the Big Ten, and occasionally the NBA, and once in a while soccer from Mexico or Europe. On game days there is always NFL football, and sometimes the CFL. For each NFL Super Bowl the General books reservations for a special deal on food and drinks and sells out every seat and table out onto the plaza. On rare quiet nights when there are no games they play ESPN SportsCenter, Fox Sports and country pop music videos.
Part stand up comedian and part godfather, Genaro not only spreads personal charismatic charm to welcome his clientele he entertains them with gab and quips and outgoing acts to keep up with his guests while seriously conducting business with his staff in Spanish. He’s on all the time, almost manic, and when I watch him I worry about his stamina, his blood pressure and his level of stress, but he always seems like he’s having fun. I still think he has a crush on Roxanne. His wife and kids show up sometimes, along with the grandmother who watches the kids while the mom puts in a shift minding the cash booth. This past year she had a baby boy, their first son and Genaro fields congratulations and jokes that it won’t be long he’ll have the kid trained to sell Chiclets out front of Kisses, the strip show bar in the other town.
The General’s is always packed, though we always seem to get a table. The food is good and they don’t pretend to be gourmet cuisine. If not best at any given dish, their kitchen turns out good knockoffs of what is standard fare everywhere else, including spaghetti Bolognese. The fajitas are very tasty. The guacamole sublime. Nachos fine. Good pizza. Mahi mahi can’t miss. The taco salad is delicious but the meat is served warm. They even serve poutines. The food and drink is not the main attraction but it shouldn’t be underestimated. The attraction here is all atmosphere and hospitality, a chance to root for a team (and watch TV commercials from back home) and party with vacation companions, sing along with some videos, brag a little, jest and get a selfie with the General.
There is a sign painted on the wall of the building across the walkway from his restaurant patio that advertises his place as Husband Day Care. His Canadian partners, a couple of ruggedly handsome middle aged anglos, don’t exactly look undercover in their interactions in the operation even though they are in common with the clientele if not the all Mexican staff. The customers adore the General and clamor for a table or a seat at the bar. The staff respect Genaro and follow his lead. The partners try to participate behind the scenes to keep things flowing, minding the business not inconspicuous. There is talk of taking on the empty shell of a nearby abandoned dance club and expanding the label. Somebody’s getting satisfaction out of this business and we hope Genaro and his family get the beautiful reward. Even if he is a Green Bay Packer fan.
I think the place only stays open until midnight, which is late enough by my standards but doesn’t qualify the General’s as an after hours hangout, forcing revelers to either go back to their hotels or go find someplace else to party on. After dinner Roxanne and I might stroll amid the souvenir market around the newer plaza around the bandstand and stage, where sometimes an orchestra or some bands play and singers sing and dancers perform to Mexican music, people stop and gather to watch. The plaza attracts a mix of tourists and locals enjoying the evening after work and after dinner and the tourists and locals who are Mexicans are hard to tell apart, like on the beach.
Local entertainment sometimes comes with dinner. Some restaurants feature a singer during dining hours, and others from 8 till 10 or 9 to midnight. The General has employed Jimi Mamou, a one man act with a keyboard, guitar and a percussion box who does old standards from the 1950s like Fats Domino. Jimi himself is about 82 years old, comes from New Orleans, lean and chiseled handsome a little like Chuck Berry, who dresses on stage in a sleek silver gray suit, red tie, gray stetson and shiny cordovan red shoes. He sets up his gear in the vacant corner lot in front of the General’s, they roll open part of the fence and put up some tables and chairs around a dance floor and anglo people our advanced age come out of the woodwork to dance to Jimi once a week, or catch him when he plays in Zihuatanejo at Daniel’s. Also in Zihuatanejo there’s usually a duo or trio playing in the courtyard at Coconuts and a lounge singer named Michele with a digitally canned instrumental section accompanying her at Bandito’s. The talent is generally very skilled.
At places which don’t offer live music with dinner, the open air nature of dining in Ixtapa opens up opportunities for street performers to set up close enough to get attention, play a short set and pass the hat, move on to the next cluster of restaurants. Always a guy with a guitar and a pan flute doing “El Condor Pasa”. One year there was a mariachi band in full regalia, and they were good, but I can see why they didn’t last, those hat tips don’t go very far among ten or twelve people. There’s the weak voiced girl with acoustic guitar singing with determination about who knows what en espanol, loss and lessons learned, angst and beauty, guilt and recrimination — amor y despedir, I can’t translate fast enough to guess the words, it’s her forlorn but not hopeless mood night after night that sells her songs — I might give her ten pesos, or a dollar. The cowboys who shlep the beach sometimes show up, sometimes solo. I confess, sometimes I don’t want to dine anywhere that features a show, I’d prefer to dine with undistracted conversation, and sometimes consider the street entertainers as a necessary intrusion of local talent. Interrupts my thoughts. The ones who I feel most sorry are the fire dancer mom, the bong playing dad and the little daughter who performs rhythmic gymnastics with hoops and streamers to the drumbeats, so impeccably choreographed and so smelly of kerosene from the torches of the mom’s fire dance, so loud and pounding with oversized drama with the drum, and I cannot wait until the brief show ends and I can think straight. Then along comes the pan flute guy.
The cool thing about this is you can shake your head no when approached with the hat and acknowledge disinterest in the performance or disregard for the intrusion, and the performers accept what they get and move on.
The one tolerated anomaly that exists is the prowling about of nocturnal little kids selling toys. They spring from everywhere with baskets of bright colored little toy animals. Little kids in bright clothes and good shoes and groomed hair peddling cute toys. Table to table offering toys from their baskets. They understand no and move on, they don’t seem to care or take it personally. They come back later or another patrol of kids will come by soon. In the old days they used to sell Chicklets gum, then brilliantly switched to small toys like turtles with bobbing heads, butterflies and ladybugs. Now they offer a whole basket of different animals, and Roxanne likes to check what’s new even though our grandkids are aging out of cute trinket toys. And I’m done with silly memorabilia, but it’s an interesting way to pass the time waiting for dinner, checking out the inventory of a basket offered by a nine year old kid. Usually a girl. They know the exact prices they can charge and know how to say no when offered less. When they offer three for a certain price that’s when to take it. In American money each little toy sells for a couple bucks, it’s not the money. It’s where do these kids come from and who coordinates this Chicklets enterprise.
The kids are impeccably mannered and nicely dressed. Not too charming or friendly, they keep the contact eye contact, almost professional beyond years. They know no English and a little Spanish. The sad ones are the ones hardly twelve or thirteen carrying infants. We wonder if they were once infants of some young teen mama selling Chicklets, and now they offer toys. Roxanne and I have asked who these kids are, where they come from and who organizes their sales force, and nobody really wants to tell. Nobody wants to say. Nobody wants to take credit or blame. Or explain. It’s supposed to be obvious. They are the children of the poor, the fatherless, the orphans and the abandoned. Somebody looks after them, and to finance the project they groom and train the kids to go to all the accessible restaurants in both towns and sell toys to the tourists. It shouldn’t sound so sinister.
Still we look around for signs of adult supervision and whoever might be transporting or looking after these kids are invisible. It’s as if they are all independent contractors on their own and you know it couldn’t be true, there are adults somewhere out there behind this. They say the kids come down from a village in the hills, so where is the bus that brings them into town — both towns, we’ve seen some of the same kids working the tables in Zihuatanejo, and I’m sure they don’t walk there, tough little punks they might be. A church charity, or an NGO social service, or maybe a criminal exploitation enterprise, a cartel of child labor in the cheap souvenir business, it serves a moral purpose in the community. It employs a caste of the population who otherwise would be beggars and gives them the experience of socializing and transacting business with civil expertise. They will grow up someday knowing how to negotiate agreements.
Some advise us it is better to give them food than to give money. We have offered nachos and pizza and french fries. Sometimes you see nice old gringos buying them cones of gelato. I give peso coins to the littlest ones with their mamas on the grass along the boulevard to the hotel, not buying anything, just giving. We are so rich by comparison.
The Krystal provides nightly entertainment at the hotel. Weekly on Fridays they hold a fiesta in the yard behind the hotel where the guest kids play soccer during the day, set out dozens of tables and arrange a buffet of Mexican foods and put on a show on a stage facing the yard. We don’t attend the buffet every week, or every year, though it is delicious — it’s part of the all-inclusive for those guests and costs a nominal dinner price if attended a la carte. We usually arrive back from dinner to our room in time to watch from our balcony the dance show in costumes and musical styles of several Mexican states performed to pre-recorded music. A few nights a week they set the stage for performances of local theatricals in costume lip-synching and dancing, acting out popular songs — truly corny like high school pageants but charmingly piquant. Mostly Spanish pop songs but one night they closed with YMCA, and the crowd on the lawn was all dancing it, and up on our balcony Roxanne were dancing it and I bumped her and knocked off her glasses, which landed six floors down on the roof of the restaurant. The next day a guy climbed up to retrieve them for us. And we tipped him.
And one night a week they put on karaoke in the hotel bar and that gets the Spanish language singers on stage and provokes sing-alongs when most of the audience is joining in the chorus. One hates to gawk but some of the best night time entertainment ever has been some of the latino karaoke sessions at the Krystal.
The Krystal bar used to book a man and woman duo with guitar and keyboard with a click box percussion machine, and they sang passionate romantic duets. Elvis songs like “Surrender” in Spanish. This was more than fifteen years ago, but we wish they might bring them back someday, just for us. Having Starbucks in the lobby checking wi-fi and digging the karaoke rocking from the bar, making wishes about bringing back something cool from the past, it’s night, time for bed, nothing need be done more to change the world this day, or to keep it whole. Enjoying the mocha.
Roxanne texts the kids. Shows me a ten second clip of Clara on the balance beam at a gym meet we missed. Sometimes from the lobby the Krystal wi-fi is very good, but from the room it is usually very bad. Such I’m told is a challenge of retrofitting buildings with technology. It’s a rich world problem. It will solve itself. We remember we used to call home from pay phones using prepaid phone cards purchased at the farmacia. We used internet cafes while they lasted, renting terminals by the quarter hour. I can browse the e-edition of my local paper on an iPad while Roxanne peruses her iPhone, sipping her latte — “and you your Emily Dickinson, and I my Robert Frost…” It’s a dangling conversation all right, the borders of our lives.
We always used to wish we could fly the whole family down, Vincent and Amalie, Michel and Sid and the two sisters, Clara and Tess, but it doesn’t look likely. Everybody seems to be pursuing careers and raising kids by school calendars, and their lives get busy at the same time Roxanne and I disappear from the earth, so to speak. During those years Michel’s family lived in Switzerland it was absurd to think of them being able to consider flying to join us. Truth be told Michel and Sid seem less than intrigued about visiting Ixtapa ever, even beyond the travel advisories, which they take seriously. Our vacations don’t sound all that much fun, and I give them credit for living such stressless lives they don’t feel the need to simply surrender. I can’t offer any of them anything more than a lazyass vacation at the beach in the tropics, and none of them wants that. This is something special between Roxanne and me.
Todos aman Roxanne. Everyone loves Roxanne. She listens to everybody’s stories. She asks questions. She makes factual observations. She dispenses wise advice. I cannot exaggerate how much credibility I’ve gained in this world by simply being her husband.
In Ixtapa the Mexicans pronounce her name in different ways, there’s no defined universal equivalent in Spanish (or Nahuatl). It’s something like Rozanne, or Rosanna, they just can’t agree on what to do with the x. Sometimes they choke it like the French. Sometimes they say it like the German double-S, the SS letter in their alphabet that looks like the Budweiser B. Rossahn, or Rossahnna. The letter A is always pronounced a soft a like ah (Canadians do this too) and some latinos roll their R sounds more than others, so it sounds like Rrossahn, Rrozahn, or Rrosahnah. The O is always long O. Jesus pronounces it Rrossahnnah. Anabel just calls her Roxx, like with dos equis.
Our gringo norte friends are the only people on this earth who get away with calling her Roxy. How they got a pass I’ll never know. Maybe it’s because we’re so far away from home it doesn’t matter. Maybe in Mexico she likes to have an alias. She’s long accepted thinking and unthinking references to the enduring song by the Police, though she didn’t like it for years and years until I finally convinced her it was a love song. But back home she never allows anyone to address her as Roxy, not even if favorably comparing her to Brian Ferry’s band — Slave to Love comes to mind. Not even as a joke, and people respect that. Down in Ixtapa she’s Roxy. Ask Roxy. Check with Roxy. Foxy Roxy. Roxy Lady. Roxy and Buffy. I’m Roxy’s husband.
The General calls her Roxy.
On Roxy’s birthday all our palapa friends conspire and collude with the Mexicans at the hotel to serve cake and drinks at two in the afternoon. They get Armando the hotel manager to commission a chocolate cake from his favorite pasteleria in Zihuatanejo, and everyone who knows her gathers to sing and cheer. Jesus clangs an empty steel ice bucket with a spoon chanting felicidades! They used to come down to the palapa for a big surprise but sanitary practices no longer allow serving cake on the beach so we have to lure Roxanne up to the restaurant, which no longer surprises her.
Roxanne used to say she liked to go to Mexico for her birthday to escape the attention. Back home a birthday in the dead of winter gives just cause for celebration among people starved for cheer since the Christmas lights dimmed. Roxanne’s birthday rallied her family and friends one more time to kiss off the cold drudgery, the lapsed vitamin D, SAD days without sun, and to focus all that rebellious seasonal discontent towards their love of somebody they mutually respect, who happens to have a birthday in February. My mother sponsored some lavish gigs. By the time we centered her birthday around our winter vacations Roxanne was old enough to know how much she was loved and appreciated. She was willing to leave the partying behind to others to go away and be anonymous for the sake of warm weather and the sea doing nothing.
So our winter escape was Roxanne’s birthday present to herself every year, from me too. She chose Ixtapa as much as I did, as much as Ixtapa chose us. If beach reading Nora Roberts under a palapa with a cold Modelo Negra makes her happy in February then I’m happy too.
Thinking about Fernando, the second guide to Troncones, the guy with rock zen philosophies who passed away, I recall telling him something I learned about succeeding in life, which I heard from my sister Meaghan’s current husband: Happy wife happy life. It came up in the context of his having to pick up the tamales for the Baby Jesus in the Cake Day, but it seemed concisely appropriate at the time. Happy wife happy life.
It made Roxanne happy — still makes her happy — to walk up to her calves into the tide on a warm sunny day on her birthday, anonymous under the sun, alive and well. When our Krystal companeros eventually learned her birthday — and she managed to keep it to herself several years — the event took on significance like Constitution Day, Super Bowl and Baby Jesus in the Cake Day, like old times back home. I didn’t tell, no I tried to keep her secret like a loyal and faithful spouse, but I was glad when they found out, word got around, she got the special attention she deserves. She graciously gets it that people care about her and they show it. She seamlessly builds relationships out of conversations. Maybe it’s her trusting face. You can tell at her birthday cake party every year this is protocol for wide and deep sentiments among everyone. She is hard pressed to see why she means that much to everyone but she understands perhaps her role in weaving these friendships together and bonding with one another over time, almost decades. I have met a bunch of interesting people because Roxanne is outgoing.
There’s another popular song added to Roxanne’s birthday soundtrack, something about cake by the ocean, whatever that means. We’re probably too old to comprehend the metaphor.
I used to be considered outgoing, an extrovert. I look back and see when I could have been more shy, way less outspoken. Less wiseass beyond my years. Less wrong. Being older I’m tending to watch and wait before I act or speak up, at least evaluating if my first impressions and hunches are right. And I cross reference Roxanne. My best friend ever. I think I’ve given in to laziness when it comes to being outgoing when Roxanne has afforded me the fortune of abiding relationships, I don’t seem to need to seek out and befriend new people on my own anymore. In some ways if not for Roxanne I might keep up less with my own siblings or old friends I already have.
In Ixtapa who knows if I would have ever made gringo friends without Roxanne making chums at the palapas. I might have remained spooky and anonymous minding my own business reading crime novels and essays about essays and haunting the beach wall to wall, stalking cleavage, people watching without eye contact, a swim in the surf, diving not into but underneath the breakers, drinking cervezas de barril and writing in my journal and barely emerged into any social contact with our fellow guests, except for introductions through Roxanne. I am grateful. Sometimes I am too shy for my own good, reaction to being inveterate too cool for school in my younger days, not shy enough. It could be a gift of elder age or could be a curse to examine life critically enough to see where it all may conclude when the eventual meets the inevitable and infer a good outcome. In a Minnesota nice way, without bragging too much, I’ve led a charmed life.
One of our last days this year the wind was unusually high and I recognized my day to ride the parachute on the rope behind the speedboat. I got a big pesos bill in my pocket and I hike up the beach to find Rafael’s squad only one hotel away. For some weird reason they aren’t busy because we both agree in this kind of wind it’s the best day to fly. I pay him with a peso bill with a portrait of Frida Kahlo on one face and Diego Rivera on the other, and as he gets me to step into the harness I tell him no cambio when he reaches for his wallet and he thanks me for the propina with a nod and a smile. His crew fluffs up the multicolored chute and somebody gets the rope out of the sea, a big thick cable, and hooks it to my harness. Rafael goes over the procedure to descent. He waves the flag and blows the whistle I grasp the strap cable with the red ribbon and pull it to my chest, next to my heart. He tosses the flag and blows the whistle again I let go. The speedboat engine roars and he tells me to walk, so I walk a few steps towards the sea.
The sand goes away at the edge of the water line and I am uplifted and soaring above the sparkling blue sea. Barefoot in the sky. Lofted almost vertical above the speedboat, we guessed right, the best wind ever for this. High above the rooftops of eleven story buildings I can see all the way up the Sierra Madres to the peaks, the jungles on the mountainsides, the valley of residential Ixtapa past the commercial core, the boulevard, the nature preserve, the estuary, the golf. Below the beach seems incidental, everybody so small, the hotels and condos the same scale as from the beach except looking down instead of looking up. I fix at the green space of the Ixtapa valley between the residential area and the foothills and think of who lives there, who will live there. The mountains are brown but very pretty from this vantage and otherwise an unappreciated vista. The marina’s array of yachts look surprisingly big even from the sky, surreptitious richness. It seems I’m getting an extra long ride. On the way back I scout for whales. The beach is fascinating insofar as it looks from high above like it feels to be there, random patterns of people on the sand and in the waves. To use the cliche they look like ants skips over the scale of how far it is away from the beach into the bay. The breakers, white and curling, barely register more than a whisper of sound from such a height, moot and almost mute. The boat engine is a low hum of reality. The arc of the ride barely squared me with the water’s edge when Rafael waved his flag and blew his whistle. I grabbed the cords with the red ribbon and pulled them to my heart. Slowly I drifted to the beach and hovered. He tossed the flag aside and blew the whistle again and I let go of the cords. I hovered a few seconds and descended to earth and sand like an archangel to a smattering of applause. Raphael’s crew stood by to catch me, as they always catch everybody, but they did not need to, my landing so smooth. Thank you everybody, I said as I unharnessed.
Best ride ever.
That item checked off my checklist of impulse thrills, we indulge our homesickness and prepare to say adios. Checkout day is near. The plane reservation is cast in stone. As the radio newscaster Paul Harvey might say, good day. Our gringo friends go home eventually too. Some of them still work and have work to do. I prefer to look at Roxanne and me as being on perpetual vacation, it’s just whether we spend it at home. It’s as gaudy a philosophy as the decadence of Tommy Bahama, living life as an everlasting weekend. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so self conscious among Mexicans if I actually came to get away from aching labor and had to go home to resume the grind in a doggie-dog rat race. No I’m just a glorified hobo mooching off entitlements and deferred gratification. Runaway boomchild.
Time to pack up and go home to see the kids. Real life, as Tess says. We are too suntanned now to escape notice, even ridicule, from our friends and neighbors. We look around our hotel room for every evidence of our stay and sort our belongings from what stays behind. The last supper, last breakfast. Last dip in the pool. Last kick of the rock. Last farewell to the sea.
All things must pass, so sang George Harrison, a Beatle who once lived in Hawaii. One of our compadres we hang out with of the gringo persuasion says there are three elements to a vacation trip: anticipation, participation and reflection. Over and over again Roxanne and I abandon our home — and by our state department’s account all good sense — to ease the pain of winter — and living in a biospheric environment constantly at or below zero degrees Fahrenheit is a numbing pain — to find comfort in southern Mexico. Every year we come away with fond reflections. We anticipate the next visit not so much to age us another year as to keep us young, or young as we can be at our advanced age. And as long as it lasts, this recurring sojourn offers us kisses in the moonlight holding hands on the beach. We prefer to prolong this romantic love story indefinitely.
As they say, tus labios al oido de dios.
In the taxi on the way to the airport, at a red light on the boulevard passing through Zihuatanejo there’s a billboard that says, Podemos hacer una vida mejor — we can make a better life. All the taxis have stick shifts. Buses too. You don’t see stick shifts in many American cars any more. It’s facetious to compare a better life to automatic transmissions. It isn’t obvious what a better life means. Back home we debate driverless cars. Mexico has good, solid boulevards and highways. They are home of the world’s biggest concrete cement company, CEMEX. With some cheap trade war Chinese steel they could build their own wall to keep us Americans out if they desired.
I remember watching the Arab Spring on CNN and Fox on the boxy old TV in our room at the Krystal and thinking then, this is the last time I fall for democratic movements that end up rioting in the streets because it reminds me of America in the 1960s. After watching Syria, and especially Iran, seeing popular unrest against undemocratic institutions deliver crushing undemocratic regimes again and again, it’s hard to take heart that these American ideals that mix freedom with law and justice are not crazy notions only Americans understand and practice but are universal truths pursued by humanity that will ultimately guide societies around the planet. Eight years later Egypt transitioned through a phase of the Muslim Brotherhood and back to authoritarian military rule, and Iraq and Syria degenerated in and out of ISIL. Nothing like the outcome of the American 1960s.
A freely-elected president Donald Trump.
In Mexico nobody seems to have overtly taken the bait seriously and retaliated to the president’s direct offenses and his innuendo. We have our passports and exit visas ready. The taxi brings us to the airport and I tip him well, as usual.
They call me Senor Teeps.
That’s my take of Sidney Poitier’s great line in the movie In the Heat of the Night. Nobody actually calls me Senor Tips, or El Don Propina, or any sort of title like that, I just made it up for stories back home when I get into conversations about tipping the servants. I have discovered tipping to reward good service gets good service and compensates the workforce for their work by reinforcing the value of their hospitality.
The name and the concept came to me the first year we were in Ixtapa. We went to the grocery store for bottled water, rum and Coke. I paid the cashier in American money, she tested it with a pen for counterfeiture, calculated the common exchange rate and made change in pesos. A little kid, a boy about seven bagged our bottles and handed it to me, I said gracias and we went on our way. The kid’s voice called after me, “Senor Tips, Senor Tips — Seenyour Teeps!” I turned around and he was following me with his hand out. Yes, of course I had neglected to tip the kid for bagging my groceries, so I fingered him some peso coins from my cambio and said, Vas a escuela. He ran back into the store, our business was done.
Ever since I am conscious of the value of the tip in exchange for fine service. Especially in Mexico. The General — who got tipped royally for guiding us to Troncones — teases me that I tip too high, a kind of truth in jest, but I kid him back saying my goal is to blow up the local economy. Even when it says on la cuenta the tip is included in the check (la propina es incluida) I put in a little extra when the service is right. I use cash, and in fact try to pay all expenses except the hotel in cash pesos — some restaurants don’t take credit cards, but even the ones who do appreciate avoiding the hassles of interlink fees. Cash pesos to the masajistas, or sometimes USD. Benny takes USD. At the hotel we charge our meals and incidentals to our room but make a point to tip the servants in cash, frequently in US dollars, ones and fives — they don’t mind at all, but they won’t take US coins. A $1 bill per day to the camarista who cleans our room and makes our bed, often leaving us towels of origami with flower petals — with a $5er on check-out day. The guy who reclaimed Roxanne’s reading glasses off the roof got $5. One time a lifeguard, salvavida at the beach at the Pacifica got an unsolicited $20 for snorkeling around and finding my prescription sunglasses a week after a wave knocked them off me unawares on an ocean dip. Taxi drivers get 20%. When in doubt about the math I round up at restaurants. Loose coins go to the children who sell toys.
In truth, life for us in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo is a grand bargain. One can go a little obsessive-compulsive over the peso to dollar conversion but the prices inevitably favor what one pays at home for a shrimp dinner. To say the least. No sense getting cheap with the people.
They earn every peso.
It’s not fair to let the president’s demonification of Mexico escalate beyond mollification and saving faces. I feel sorry for feeling I have to apologize. I regret the shame of my country being laughed at and pitied. We are so rich and so charmed and yet our leader preaches we are deficient, victimized and so screwed. A wall of isolation blocks us from seeing beyond borders, people who are not Americans, who are also not un-Americans or anti-Americans but actually like us for who we are but don’t really care to give up what they have and migrate to the USA. They see the Estados Unidos doesn’t want them and in a way it’s our loss, of talent and work ethic and cultural contribution, even if there’s abundantly that within America too. These are apparently not utopian times. To declare America First and vow to Make America Great Again tells the world to go covfefe and at the same time gives other nations permission to go about it the same way. Antiglobal social networks serve to unlink communications to the satisfaction of oligarchs and authoritarians, nationalists and separatists alike.
The boundary line world today has no tolerance for Imagine-there’s-no-heaven dreamers who won’t recognize such implacable factors as sovereignty. Wishing away borders won’t wash away migration across boundaries nation states compel themselves to defend against declared enemies, I get that. Nation states tend to regulate who and what comes in or goes out of their lands. I have sympathy for people who come to America to flee misery, as I am sad for the refugees of Europe escaping the civil wars. I am proud of America and its goodness, its liberty and standard of living. I can understand why somebody facing a horrible life and death would want to come here whether inflicted by war, genocide, gang violence, famine or terrorism, America offers a society where there is peace and a chance to start over with a life without fear. Knowing what I know, if my life were screwed by the wretchedness the world can behold, I would love to come to America too. And if that cannot happen, I would want America to come to me. I would want my homeland to be peaceful, prosperous and free like America.
Like America is supposed to be, and it’s a country with an extensive written canon of what it says it’s supposed to be. America was founded coincidental to a boom in printed written technology and the founders wrote down and published scads of words describing what they founded. The first amendment to the national, federal constitution guarantees freedom to think, speak, write and publish. We can debate for all time how and whether we have become or are becoming a more perfect union, as they predicted, or give it all up and let the future projection of our culture fall to the lowest common denominator, a denominator based on false calculation.
Countries like Mexico are poised in this world to pick up where America leaves off if we stop leading, or to keep up if we keep progressing, either way they have their own metrics and market research. It isn’t Bumpkinland. (No es Tierra Los Palurdos.) They got the same software we do.
Imagine being there on the beach the day they named Playa Ropa. Alleluia, the great storm is over. The wind stopped howling. The sky is clearing gray to celeste. The sea is calmed back to normal surf. And behold, floating gently to the beach are bales of cloth. Untie them and find garments made of silk and linen of multiple colors, embroidered with exotic flower patterns, skirts and dresses and printed blouses. Pantalones majestuosos. Vestidos elegantes. Blusas y camisas hermosas. You and your family and friends and neighbors splay them across the beach and pick and choose favorites, and by nightfall there’s nothing left, not even a belt, like a good yard sale. For the next generation Zihuatanejo is the fashion capital of New Spain.
A few of the last days at the palapa this year our neighbors consisted of a band of couples in their early thirties who turned out to be from Alberta. When Victor came around with his baritone announcing Sockair T-shirts! the guys razzed him. Got him to unstack his shirts and show them each team, all the colors, all while offering him patronizing lowball money for the shirts they might like. Victor’s price was 200 pesos per shirt. That’s a touch over $10 USD. The guys offered $5 each, Canadian. Victor didn’t want Canadian money and wouldn’t budge. The guys sent him packing and said, don’t worry, in a day or so he’ll come down, he’ll get desperate for a sale. The next day the same guys taunted him a little, and he paused at their palapa but didn’t bother to unstack the shirts. They offered a hundred pesos per shirt and Victor kept walking. Tomorrow, the guys said, he’ll come down. They talked behind his back as if he was already beyond earshot — I could hear, and Victor was closer — or presuming he knew little English.
When Victor got to my lounge chair I asked him if he had any shirts with no advertisements for liquor or beer, preferably child sizes, for my grandkids. A year ago I bought one for myself that said Bimbo across the chest, for a popular bakery goods company similar to what Hostess the Twinkie maker was in America — the Bimbo package logo features a cuddly teddy bear like the Snuggles bear for the American laundry softener — which I thought both cute and sinister at the time. He dug into his backpack for child sizes and came up with a bright colored one of red and gold with a Barcelona signature and ads for a Turkish appliance company and a Japanese software firm — perfect for Tess. For Clara we found a forest green straightforward shirt that simply said Mexico up front and Soy Mexico on the back. 400 pesos, cash, no haggling and no discount.
The next day the Canadian guys made their last day pitch to Victor, last chance, going home tomorrow, a hundred pesos a shirt. How about three for two-fifty. Okay, eighty a shirt. Victor kept walking and as he shot me a glance that said gringos chilangos with his eyes I’m sure I heard his sotto voice gently say, Van a diablo. One of the guys said, what does diablo mean?
At the ZIH airport the Mexican equivalent of the TSA agent detained me a moment in line to ask me questions about where I was going, where I had stayed in Ixtapa, the purpose of my visit to Mexico, whether I had packed my own bag or anyone else had access to it, or if I had left it alone at any time. In perfect English. It was the most I had ever been questioned at an airport outside Amsterdam. Rather than consider it harassment I figured the guy had a quota of random queries as part of his job so I unhesitatingly gave him the answers, and he passed me through officiously.
So there went another defiant vacation deep beyond the far side of the wall, and nothing bad happened to us. Now the fuhrer is incensed about intelligence reports about a caravan of gate crashers from Central America coming our way through Mexico City and he’s threatening to tear up the NAFTA treaty to punish Mexico if they don’t stop the horde, like Mexico City is some kind of Constantinople and Dallas is Rome, or maybe the other way around. Nothing in this world will make America great (again or even asi asi) by making Mexico a demonym and sabotaging its economy. It’s like spreading Russian propaganda to influence votes. It’s like spinning fake news for blackmail. It’s the nth degree of kabibble. If the president truly wanted to hold high level talks among world leaders about the issues that trouble the planet, he would organize summits around themes like the underlying causes of current population migration and get Mexico’s take on what’s driving asylum seekers and basic economic opportunists alike to pack up worldwide and cross borders en masse.
In my city, Minneapolis, it’s home to a bunch of immigrant populations dating way back to French explorer-traders, then the European homesteaders, laborers and servants backfilled a society of migrants from eastern America, in turn kids of immigrants, and waves of refugees of every moral world crisis, slavery, communist occupation, Nazism, terrorism, civil wars, insurrection, cartel gangsters on almost every continent up to present day. Among them are latinos, many Mexicans, and I wonder why they chose to come so far up north to leave behind their lives so much closer to the equator. They admit it’s a sacrifice, the muy frio, but they like Minnesota when it isn’t winter and don’t justify why they’re here against there, they just are. It’s supposed to be obvious they think they are in a better place or they would not be here. If there is a home to go back to they would go home if they wanted to, but they stay. Life is good here. Might as well call them Americans.
Their children will grow up to address the results of what we’ve done to assimilate the foreigners displaced by human tragedies. Looking at each other as competent adults it becomes us to seriously examine and address the roots of these tragedies and own and atone for them before passing the age old human torch to these kids when they grow up, assimilated or not.
A true patriot and public servant of a president would see why it’s not a wall what’s needed but Windows. It’s inhumane to hold DACA dreamers hostage to NAFTA and the national guard but that’s the hold he’s got over his red meat base. A public service would be to turn these DACA people around to make them weird heroes and role models for accomplishments and publicize them for perseverence, even if requiring some kind of public restitution such as public service as a path to citizenship, an earned amnesty. For all his show business conceits, Trump misses out where he could really influence culture through reality TV via public service promoting civic virtues instead of concealing vices, making real news instead of faking history.
He is not a good servant, and he should not be tipped.
But it is not his fault Roxanne and I returned home to punishment of eight more weeks of hard winter, back to back to back blizzards and ice cold winds into mid-April. Punishment for four weeks in Mexico. I would like to blame bad weather on the fuhrer but it’s not scientifically possible. Not biopolitically feasible. No need for another stupid conspiracy theory. If it’s karma, then so be it, worth a trade of one month pleasure for two months pain. It was just as bad while we were gone. We do not deserve such maltreatment from nature. Shoveling two feet of fresh snow again last week it seemed painfully clear this year we came home from Ixtapa too soon. Mental note for the future.
If they’ll have us back.