Wednesday, January 26, 2022

A Serpent In Paradise

I found myself day dreaming at the wheel as we drove out of the mountains south of Puerto Vallarta along Highway 200. I jerked myself out of it because dropping your guard can be quite shocking in Mexico. The roads are full of potholes and cows and people and topes (speed bumps) and all manner of sudden obstructions. Yet here I was drifting along at 60 miles an hour like I was driving through Central Florida on Highway 27 without a care in the world.

Call it miraculous but after the appalling potholes and bumps of Highway 200 coming out of Puerto Vallarta, the dystopian city of rain and traffic jams and crowds and ugliness, we broke out onto a ribbon of smooth black asphalt climbing into the mountains through small picturesque villages and miles of canopy shading the sun that had finally broken through the cloud cover. I was obviously exhausted and it was two o’clock and we hadn’t eaten. My wife instructed me to find a space to pull over so she could make lunch. Her wish was my command and I magically caused a disused sand quarry to appear. 

She opened the Gannet Café while the Chief Security Officer and I went out to check the perimeter. As we ate our salmon salad I dropped a suggestion in the ships suggestion box, pretty sure it would sink out of sight. “We could spend the night here.” I was exhausted after all the dodg’ems in the Big City. “Okay” she said. And just like that we did. 

She amused herself deploying the Instapot while I took a nap with Rusty and dug into a Nevada Barr novel recommended by Bruce  a former New Mexico resident. The clouds dropped their loads and a light rain spattered GANNET2 making the dust speckle to look like camouflage. All we could hear was the occasional drone of traffic on the highway below punctuated by the roar of trucks using their Jake brakes to slow their descents. Night fell, and just like that we were alone.
It would be satisfyingly dramatic to report that we were set upon by bandits but our lives are surprisingly not the scene of a melodrama and in due course the sun came up and I dragged myself from my comfortable bed to take the hound from hell on his morning walk, the unvarying routine. 

We dodged cow pats and fences and followed a trail up into the woods above the van and the road far below, the only signs of life. 

Of course when we got back on the road we immediately encountered people shattering our feeling of being alone, first a work crew rebuilding a culvert and as soon as we crested the pass we saw a restaurant offering breakfast and pretty soon the perfect black ribbon of asphalt brought us to a market town, Tomatlán where Layne shouted “Tamales!” a secret code word for “Stop the van!”  She went shopping while Rusty put the fear of God into a sweet local resident with her tail between her legs.  I tried to offer her a chicken strip but she was too beaten down to take even that. I uploaded my previous day’s blog as we had internet service again. That’s why yesterdays entry came late. Today’s is late because I sat out in the sun too long  and went to bed early feeling feverish. I missed the tropical weather apparently and enjoyed too much all at once.
Herself came back with a cabbage and carrots a mango and tamales and I don’t remember what else for seven bucks  and all the activated memories of the fun of shopping in the local markets in Mexico.

We drove on until we got to the approved iOverlander stop at a gas station. Truck parking in back, clean bathrooms and a convenience store and restrooms. What else does a traveler need?
These places are easy and free and convenient but they aren’t any more pretty than they are in the US. The food is good though and filling. We ate for four bucks. My wife took a flattering picture of The Author At Lunch.

I cannot deny I was regretting introducing my wife to the iOverlander app as she was now ferociously looking up campsites along the coast. My suggestion of a wild camp at a side beach at Tenacatita Bay was swept aside by a sumptuous description of a small campground at Punta Perula some thirty miles north.

I’ll give you one guess who won that debate?
$17:50 a night and we got a waterfront spot in this tiny park thanks to a low hanging wire that puts less intrepid campers off taking this prime spot. 

The nice lady in charge used a kayak paddle to lift the wire and in we snuck. Perfect! We went for a swim and the water was warm especially after our cooler experiences up north. I love the coconut palms that at last remind me of the Keys ( and I don’t have to trim clean and pick up after them!). A neighbor came by and introduced herself from Michigan and invited us to a dinner they hold every week in town as a local fund raiser. We were set. 

She even solved a slight bit of stupidity on our part. We had arrived with only $75 in pesos. We had been reluctant to hunt for a bank ATM in Puerto Vallarta in the chaos so, experienced travelers that we are we set off into the mountains and this underpopulated coast with little cash. Brilliant! The lady from
Michigan even changed a hundred bucks for us to extricate us from our derangement. Pretty nice.

We were set. Then our neighbor, a nurse, came back by with some bad news. The French Canadian woman in the van two spaces away was in bed with Covid. Two other anti- vaxxers from Canada also have Covid. We canceled  our participation in the dinner and got to thinking.

We had to make a rational decision and set our anger and irritation aside. We are self contained so we can live apart in this splendid spot for a couple of days at least. We were actually talking about staying a week if our friend Ron shows up in a couple of days with more pesos in hand (His comment was that the worst decisions make the best stories as he laughed at our sudden involuntary poverty. He’s dead right!).

At this point I don’t know what we will do. The town of Punta Perula needs to be explored as it looks interesting. The idea of staying here and having a community of businesses and restaurants at hand is so appealing. But there is the big but.

We have avoided Covid for two long years. It would be a shame to end that winning streak now. Especially with Layne’s immune issues. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Gringo Land

I have never seriously entertained the notion of retiring abroad yet it is a popular option for Americans who want a cheaper life in Mexico among other countries. The appeal of retiring on the cheap is undeniable. But there are aspects that I find decidedly unattractive.

The bust of Emiliano Zapata a mythical Mexican revolutionary stands at the entrance to Punta Mita a former surfers beach hang out when we sailed here from California at the end of the century. His glowering presence is hugely ironic given that today this town is devoted to serving Americans living either in Mexico or surrounded by Mexico. 

Of course there are different ways to live in Mexico but we spent Monday on a slightly sentimental journey through the Bay of Banderas, the body of water that Puerto Vallarta sits upon and which we visited in 1998. It was a different world of course now, like any other population center that has evolved over twenty years.
We remembered La Cruz de Huanacaxtle as a little village with fishing boats pulled up on the beach and a few sailboats anchored inside a small municipal breakwater. We anchored outside and brought our dogs and our dinghy to land in the calm waters in front of the cruisers hangout, a little waterfront cafe. Now there is a marina and a wall.

Cruisers who want to get out and eat a bite in Mexico van cross the wall and sit on a street far outside any water view.

We found a space for  GANNET2 at the Benito Juarez park and took Rusty for his usual stroll. I was keen to see the waterfront. Easier said than done.

There are people still out there sitting in their boats. I don’t envy them. I enjoy driving and wandering through small Mexican towns and when it rains I turn on the windshield wipers. I don’t miss dragging anchors and sitting around talking about the cost of all things boat related. 

I am in a minority in these things I know, but I’d rather see the old village back. I know the clock can’t be reversed. We were here in a moment in time. The same way Key West has evolved and changed and taken the promise of wealth. I saw signs in English filled with prohibitions as we walked off the sand and came through the marina. 

I put Rusty on his leash and we walked back through the gate as though we belonged. Back to the world of  things slightly askew and potholed  streets. No drinking of intoxicating liquor in public places. A shame that as I was feeling low. 

An angry Mexican walked up to me in Punta de Mita while I stood outside the van and maybe was inside on the loo. Yeah I know, it happens. In this case this guy who was moving some trash or something was angry about something and started yelling at me and when I replied calmly in Spanish he switched to fluent English.  He told me to fuck off and this was his town and I stood there telling him to back off. It was actually quite funny as I couldn’t get into  the van or Layne would have killed me! I dared not turn my back on him as he was fingering his pocket like he was going to pull a knife. Great I thought to myself. I’m going to have to punch a man at my age. I’d better make it good. No knife appeared and I told him I was leaving. He could keep his town. He wandered off mumbling and finally Layne was ready to receive visitors. I guess I was handling it okay as the chief security officer was sitting behind a light pole firing the exchange. 

In my world view the fact that there was a resentful angry Mexican taking out his anger on foreign incomers reinforces my feelings about foreign enclaves living apart in Mexico.

Puerto Vallarta is a big city. I find it rather touching that Layne points out the Starbucks and Subways as though she is still surprised by the hegemony of American culture. I enjoy poking around Mexican tiendas and watching Layne exploring new flavors for her kitchen.  

The fact is we all like the ability to reach out for the familiar when we are away. Layne and I have been traveling for three months and the normal exhaustion that comes from constant novelty hasn’t made itself felt.

The reason is we have a life aboard GANNET2 that is as far from Mexico as Cudjoe Key. We close the door on the world and we are gone. We watch silly TV, we eat familiar food, consume familiar art and we refresh ourselves for another day of Mexico and the unfamiliar.

But we don’t want to immerse ourselves in expatriate culture. As much as Covid allows we float through the fringes of the world we have come to see. And that isn’t the world of yacht clubs or gated communities but I’m glad they are there for those who want them.

Mexico is huge, larger than you know, and most of it will never see an American. The fear and the myths and the reports of drug violence that have nothing to do with visitors keep people away. Obviously I don’t fit in that camp and I hope it’s obvious by now the dangers of Mexico are overrated. 

In these modern times the Internet makes travel easy even if you don’t speak the language. Being able to converse will add depth to a visit but  using electronic guides will get you where you want to go. 

Understanding the culture helps but you don’t need to speak Spanish. The trick is to understand the hints and not to cross invisible lines. Making assumptions and presuming will bring down the guardians of the rules. 

In La Cruz there was an unattended hose in the park and I wanted to use it to hose off the dust that has built up on our home since our last dirt road exploration. However there was no one in the park to ask permission. Should I have used it anyway? 

Layne has enjoyed visiting Mexico all her life so she needed no persuasion to make a turn to the south. I enjoy the variety from both sides of the border and I am aware of the privilege of being able to cross at will. 

I don’t recommend visiting as giving advice is generally a waste of time. But I’m glad we came.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Beach Hunting

Yesterday was one of those days when nothing goes right. It was no great drama - van life shock! horror! click bait! - but it was instead a series of small reverses that added up to an irritating time on the road. 

We left the truck stop south of Mazatlan early, around eight, to get a good start as we hoped find a beach spot to sit still for a few days. The toll road wasn’t busy on a Sunday and we bowled along at 55 to 60 listening to a Carl Hiassen novel (Chomp), a pleasant light memory of South Florida and home.

The toll road isn’t a normal freeway like you’d understand it. Long stretches in Nayarit State were two lanes only, though reasonably pot hole free. Short stretches  went through towns and villages as though a toll road were suddenly a four lane Main Street. It’s slightly weird but you get used to it. The other thing to know is there is an  expectation that slower vehicles will get out of the way and ride the shoulder if there is one.
On a two lane like this when passed you don’t take offense, you just pull aside. If oncoming traffic is passing you don’t play chicken, you just pull onto your own shoulder and keep going. Also when passing in an iffy area ( like the crest of a hill!) turn on your headlights. I was really getting into it and enjoying the flow until the voice of reason suggested she was getting a bit nervous at my Italian style of making progress. The van is a small home for us to live in and she is important to my welfare so I did as I was told. It was fun though driving like a Mexican and I really enjoy their no stress style. 

Turning off to take the highway to San Blas was lovely. The road wound down the mountain, perfectly smooth and full of gorgeous views between the mango groves. San Blas is known for its vicious insects that breed in the mangroves in the estuaries around the city. Long ago San Blas was a major shipbuilding center but the harbor silted in and trade moved to cities up the coast. San Blas never got over becoming a bug filled backwater. 

The lovely central square is all torn up and dusty. That was a disappointment. We sailed here twenty years ago and had fond memories of walking the town before retreating to the boat of an evening to avoid the infamous insect bites.

Our favorite ice creams, one dollar paletas de Michoacán, watermelon for Layne and strawberry for me. 

I used the wide angled setting on my phone to catch Rusty staring at the dogs on the roof. You can see the distortion that gives Rusty a barrel shaped look. A local sitting on his sidewalk engaged with me and started chatting about him. He’s fat he said. Well I wanted to say your dogs are underfed but I laughed and kept my opinions to myself. 

We had already stopped for lunch  when we arrived town. Dorado and grilled lobster and two sodas (“Coca lite”) and it was excellent but not inexpensive at $33. A friend asked it it was street food. Not at that price Bruce! 

Layne got a to go box from the van and we took some dorado for later. It’s nice traveling with your own fridge! Then she went shopping:
On the way out of town we stopped for “world famous” banana bread which looks very familiar and Layne who enjoys shopping the street stalls also got a pie. A sort of ricotta texture not too sweet and of undefinable flavor.
On the whole San Blas left us feeling disappointed. The town doesn’t seem to have enjoyed prosperity as one might have liked. It doesn’t have a very vibrant feel. We set off to find a campground on a beach an hour south as listed on iOverlander the invaluable app.
We followed the directions and took twenty minutes to cover less than two miles of rocky lumpy jerky dusty mess. We crawled and made our slow way past a private development. 
The van did well and the skid plate protected us from the rocks. It was like being at sea and hitting waves every few seconds, rocking side to side as we lurched. 

We got to the beach but the main area was closed as part of the private  development. A side road seemed to be the way to go with mangroves on the left and a barbed wire fence on the right bypassing the beach club. The track was narrow but we made it until an overhead branch threatened our roof. I stopped. We had to go back or cut the branch. I was ready to get the saw out but my common sense wife noted we were in full view of God and everybody and we didn’t know whose private property I wanted to vandalize. Sighing, and forgetting to take a picture I started backing up.

Somehow I avoided backing into a broken culvert and I avoided scraping the barbed wire. Or whacking the roof air conditioner.  A young couple in a Nissan Versa smiled after waiting patiently for my maneuvering before they turned down the lane to the restaurant and campground. They confirmed the privacy of the club we could see, and said the campground was down the track we couldn’t negotiate. We turned around.

The journey back was tough as we had failed. We made it back to pavement at which point We had 90 minutes till dark so we tried our second parking choice 15 minutes down the road. That was a bust as it was a large parking lot next to some loud restaurants and the whole area was filled with trash. Rusty would have been overwhelmed by the number of local dogs. This was a no go. We fell back on our last resort plan: a gas station on the edge of a nearby town called Las Varas (“the canes”) about an hour away.

We passed through a small town on the way, Zacualpan of which we had never heard. It was pretty enough but it was also a break from the many nasty potholes and topes (speed bumps) that littered Highway 16. 

The cratered nature of the main road wore on our last nerve but it also explained why Google estimated a 35 minute drive for 16 miles.

It was about a half hour before dark when we saw our destination. Two traffic cops were monitoring the highway but they ignored us. That was checkpoint number 13 since we entered Mexico. We have never been stopped, not once. So much for corrupt police. So much for dangerous Mexico. We drive as freely as we do in the States.

We put $66 of regular into the heroic GANNET2 and gave the attendant a dollar when he said we would be fine if we parked for the night. We sat and stared at our phones for a while wondering where we were going next. Then I walked Rusty and said hello to some people sitting out enjoying a Sunday evening. Good for your health he said to walk the dog. I agreed. Good for my mental health too.

He ate a huge dinner, we had salad and a beer and a slice of banana bread. I think we shall all sleep well. Monday we will try to find an oceanside berth near Punta Mita north of Puerto Vallarta. Fingers crossed.