Monday, January 11, 2016

La Muerte de Bowie

I woke to the news of David Bowie’s death.  I had been listening to him since high school and rather enjoyed much of his work. I even got to see him play live about 10 years ago. His talent and charm will certainly be missed.

We four decided to go visit the cathedral and, time and energy permitting, see a bit of the historic district of Mazatlán. The resort staff called us a taxi and we were on our way. When we arrived, the driver pointed us in the direction of a few interesting things nearby and agreed to meet us back at one of the cathedral’s side entrances in an hour and a half. While it cost a bit extra for this service, it was great to have if Elena got tired and needed to return to the resort. It also meant we didn’t have to wander around on Mazatlán’s sometimes narrow and precarious sidewalks looking for a reputable method of transportation.

It had been fun speaking Spanish all over the place and I felt we were getting better information and better service because of it. Most of the staff at the resort spoke a little English, but not always well. I had witnessed more than one sigh of relief when someone realized they didn't have to struggle through a foreign language when talking to me. It was no different out and about and I took charge of getting information and negotiating transactions. Back in the States I had been feeling insecure about my speaking abilities. Interpreting for others was becoming more difficult because I just wasn't getting a lot of practice. Hell, I barely even spoke English to people now that I worked from home. In Mazatlán, however, several people had complemented my linguistic abilities. They were always pleasantly surprised at how fluent I was and would ask why I knew Spanish. Rather than explaining that it was a combination of years of study, living abroad, and a decade of working in translation, I found that it was much easier just to say, “My dad is Mexican.” Even if my dad only really taught me the words and phrases that came with the warning, “Don’t ever say that in front of your grandma!” it at least bought me a little cultural cred.

The cathedral was lovely, save for the somewhat graphic anti-abortion display at the main entrance. We strolled up and down the aisles, attracting curious stares from Mexican visitors who tended to sit and pray rather than gawk at different aspects of the nave. There were only a couple other foreign tourists inside and not many around town either. The ceiling was ornate and floral, lit by the afternoon sun shining in through the multicolored stained glass. This cast a glowing rainbow-colored light on the main altar.

Cathedral exterior overlooking Plaza República

Cathedral ceiling and pillars

 Rainbow lit altar

Virgin Mary

The cathedral was not very large so we weren't there for very long. We exited and shopped for religious trinkets, and then crossed the street into Plaza República, the central plaza of the historic district. It was modest in size and its footpaths were lined with busy shoeshines. Elderly people sat on benches and chatted with one another. One such bench held three men, two of which looked like brothers and, strangely, much like my grandfather who had the same thick white hair and bushy mustache. They all wore standard Mexican cowboy gear. I didn’t have the courage to ask them if I could take their picture, but I wish I had.

We walked a couple of blocks to a nearby indoor market. As soon as we entered, several saleswomen politely accosted us to show us their knickknacks, clothing, jewelry, etc. The market was busy but not overly crowded. Within a couple of minutes I heard mariachi music nearby and I could tell it was live. A man in a cowboy hat came around the corner, carrying a large hexagonal boombox that played background music while he sang Volver Volver with all his heart. His voice was strong and beautiful and I barely managed to dig several pesos out of my pocket and dump them in his donation cup before I burst into tears. I love mariachi so much that I just can’t keep my shit together.

Food and textiles side-by-side in the mercado

Soon thereafter a friendly and persistent saleswoman coaxed Charlie into her a kiosk by flashing a very nice cream-colored guayabera in his face. This gave me a chance to compose myself because I had to concentrate on wheeling and dealing for what became two guayaberas while fending off the other saleswomen who came at me with dress after sarape after poncho, desperately trying to sell me something. Tony and Elena were also seduced by some of the colorful wares these diligent women had to offer and left with a new tablecloth and an embroidered blouse. The mariachi must have noticed the effect he had on me, or perhaps in my haste I had been unusually generous, because he stayed close by and circled around the block of kiosks where we shopped.

After a little more perusing we ended up in the food section of the market. We realized we wouldn’t have time to eat in the neighborhood before our driver would be back to collect us, so Charlie decided to pick up some ingredients for lunch. We bought a couple pounds of shrimp from a fishmonger for only $5.50 USD and then visited a vegetable stand. The vendor complemented my Spanish and then I was immediately embarrassed because I needed to ask for celery and couldn’t remember what it was called. I pointed it out and named the nearest vegetable so that he would know what I was talking about. He smiled and offered, “Apio.” After we paid him I asked where we could get some really good corn tortillas. He told us to exit the market and walk a block to a nearby tortillería where they would be fresh and warm. Our time was running short so we told Tony and Elena to stay put and then booked it to the tortillería. It was nothing more than an open-air corner shop with a big tortilla-making machine, several gigantic balls of dough sitting in containers here and there, and a counter where the checkout girl weighed out each patron’s order on a scale, taking bunches of tortillas off the top of a steaming stack. After discussing whether a kilo of tortillas might be too much, we asked for a kilo anyway, paid her the customary $15 MXN (less than a dollar USD), and were on our way back to the market to collect the parents.

We walked the couple of blocks back to our agreed-upon pick up spot and our driver, who had seen us coming, approached on foot. He instructed us to wait there so that he could bring the car around. Several minutes passed, presumably because of all the traffic on the adjacent streets, and we must have looked lost or concerned because two North Americans who seemed in the know stopped to ask us whether we needed help. We declined and our driver arrived shortly thereafter. We returned to the resort and Charlie made us a late lunch of shrimp tacos in a tomato-based sauce, a fresh salsa of tomato, pepper, cucumber, and cilantro, and more of the beautiful avocados that we have been eating daily. Oh, and we managed to wolf down about half of the fresh tortillas we had just bought. If anything, a kilo was too little.

After lunch, Tony and Elena took a short nap and we cleaned up the kitchen. Then we all went down to the pool. We didn’t last long because the sun was already low in the sky and the palm trees were shading much of the sunbathing area. There was also a little breeze coming off of the ocean so it got chilly quite fast. We decided to take our relaxation back to the room.

Later we went down to the resort’s restaurant for dinner where the special was the salad/dessert buffet and three tacos with choice of meat. I had taco salad and carne asada tacos. I had predicted that I would get sick of Mexican food at some point, but that had yet to occur.

We went back to the room and introduced the parents to Qwirkle, a game similar to Dominoes and Set. I like to think of it as Dominoes for dummies since it doesn’t really require any counting and you work with large blocks stamped with bright rainbow-colored shapes. It’s an aesthetically pleasing game. Charlie whooped our asses almost every time.

After dinner Charlie and I went down to the pool for our nightly smoke/read session and a camera test of Smoking in the Park (coming soon!). The only lighting we had to work with were the bright floodlights that are kept on shining over the pool at night, so we had to make sure they were sufficient. After that, we continued our nightly routine of sitting in our couch fort, eating Takis, and rewatching Arrested Development.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Les Chaises Longues

This morning Elena declared that she wanted to go to the beach. Charlie and I took our time getting up and about, had leftover mole for breakfast, and then we all headed out. Tony and Elena had been shown a staff-only paved pathway between some of the buildings that she could use to take her wheelchair to the beach. Where the resort met the beach there were several palapas with chaises longues beneath them, adjacent to a small bar with wooden swings (in place of stools) suspended from the awning. Elena's wheelchair could not operate on sand and when we got there, the only reclining chairs in the shade were a little ways away from the pavement. A staff managers stood nearby and noticed that we were considering our options. He told us, “We will take her anywhere she wants to go.” We pointed out a seat and he called over three other young men to help him. They lifted Elena in her wheelchair and set her down next to the beach chair she would occupy for the better part of the afternoon.

The rest of us installed ourselves next to her and read, relaxed, or people-watched. We noticed a little boy wearing a Seattle Seahawks jersey and discussed how we couldn’t escape football even here. There had even been signs around the resort advertising upcoming football games and we had seen some Americans watching a college game on the big TV in the lounge. The beach was pretty quiet, and fortunately the wind had died down so the temperature was great. Charlie and I took another walk along the shore so that he could smoke cigar, and then rejoined Tony and Elena under the palapas.

Waiters came by periodically to see if we needed anything to eat or drink. We eventually ordered some very good fish ceviche, a couple plates of French fries, and chiles rellenos. Nearby three aspiring Adonises stood around displaying their fairly cut but wispy thin bodies. The most jacked of them wore one of those itty bitty speedo-type bathing suits that doesn’t look good on anyone. They were all tanned beyond was what was prudent and were clearly trying to impress each other and anyone else who might be watching. The skinniest of them even went as far as doing some half-assed push-ups in the sand. The only woman among them wore a thong bikini and had very large, very fake breasts. It was like an episode of Baywatch.

After lunch Charlie and I decided to go swimming in the pool. Charlie really wanted to swim in the ocean but there were signs prohibiting this due to the large sharp rocks hidden beneath the waves just a little ways out. The waves themselves were also pretty imposing. Despite the prohibition, there was a lifeguard on duty, although he spent most of the afternoon crouched in the shade behind his lifeguard stand, facing away from the water. We found a place to swim in a fairly deserted corner of the large pool. The resort's website had advertised it as a heated pool, but it was pretty damn cold and took some getting used to. The sun began to sink in the sky and the palm trees partially shaded this section of the pool. We didn’t last long before we were too cold to swim and decided to get out. As we walked toward the pool steps, I noticed a mother and her young son and daughter sitting under a poolside umbrella. A pair of red Crocs was slowly floating away from them in the water. The girl, who looked maybe four years-old, noticed us and pointed at the shoes expectantly but didn’t say anything. She might not have been sure whether we spoke her language. “Did you lose your shoes?” I asked her in Spanish. She pointed at her slightly older brother, “They’re his! They fell off!” I brought her the shoes and their mother thanked me.

Charlie and I found a couple chaises longues in the sun and decided to lie there awhile to let the water evaporate off of us. It wasn’t long before we felt that we were baking, so we went up to our room. Tony and Elena had just gotten there as well. They reported that people had been riding loud dune buggies on the beach so it was no longer peaceful and quiet.

That evening Charlie cooked marinated chicken and sautéed potatoes. He had been making due quite well with his pocketknife, two cooking pots, and two weak burners. At one point he happened to look out the big window in our sitting room and reported that the bellboys were racing each other down a paved hill on the luggage carts. After dinner he and I went out to sit by the pool again so that he could have a cigar. I was trying to read The Martian, but every time we sat down to read together we ended up talking so I didn't get very far.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Day I Got a Girlfriend

Charlie slept about twelve hours and I got at least nine. There’s nothing like being sleep deprived and jetlagged to help you get through what would otherwise have been a restless night on an uncomfortable bed in an unfamiliar place. My back didn’t even hurt when I woke. I had been dreaming that Charlie and I were seated side-by-side at a library, looking at a picture of Michelle Obama. The president came up behind us and I said to him, “Your wife is a hot babe.” I immediately realized that this was a disrespectful thing to say to a man of his standing, so I added, “… Sir.”

Charlie and I reluctantly pulled ourselves out of bed, showered, and reconsolidated our belongings. We went down stairs and checked out and then went into the resort's third and newest building to drop our bags in Tony and Elena’s provisional room. We would all be relocated to a single room later that afternoon.

Looking southeast from our first building

Looking east from our balcony over Villa Marina

Northern view over Royal Country with mountains in the distance

Tony and Elena had a rest because they had already been up for hours, and Charlie and I went down to have breakfast at the resort’s restaurant. On the way we passed the woman who I had locked eyes with the day before in the lobby. She greeted me with more intense eye contact, placed her hand over her heart and bowed subtly. After we had passed her Charlie and I looked at one another and raised our eyebrows. “She looooves you,” he said.

The restaurant was serving a buffet of both standard American fare and Mexican food. We went for the latter and ate chilaquiles with both red and green salsa, pork taquitos, refried beans, and potatoes cooked with onions and peppers. Once again service took so long that we were antsy to leave by the time the bill was brought, but at least the food was good. Unfortunately, we had to listen to ABBA being played over the loudspeakers that surrounded the adjacent pool.

We four travelers had previously agreed that all we would do that day was sit by the pool. We found a comfy spot, adjusted the umbrella and proceeded to lounge around. It was quite windy so the temperature was almost perfect when sitting in the sun, but we knew our translucent Seattle skin would not allow us to sit in the sun all day. However, the shade proved to be a little too cold at times.

After a while, Charlie and I took a walk down the long beach, Playa Cerritos, next to the resort. The sand was wonderfully smooth and warm, and there weren’t many people around. We were approached by the occasional vendor selling hats, jewelry, and very fake "Cuban" cigars, but none of them were very pushy and left us alone after a simple, “No, gracias.”

Facing north on Playa Cerritos

Cha partaking

After the smokewalk we rejoined Tony and Elena at the pool. It was too hot to sit in the sun and a little too breezy to sit in the shade, so I moved from chair to chair. We watched a woman feed fruit to a large iguana who was parked under a palm tree. I had seen pictures of iguanas on the resort’s Trip Advisor page, but this was the first one I actually saw in person. A family noticed the iguana and approached it, the adults wisely keeping their distance. One busy bodied little boy traipsed around as little boys are wont to do, and the iguana watched intently to make sure there was no threat. Had the boy come any closer than he did, I feared he would be in for a nasty tail whip or even a bite.

King of Pool Island

Tony and Charlie had an appointment to talk to reception about the new room that we would all be moved into that afternoon, so they withdrew from the poolside to do so. They came back some time later and assured us that it was up to standards. I was very pleased when I finally saw it. The room was large and bright with big windows facing inland. We had a small kitchen, large dining table, and a bedroom with a king size bed and private balcony for Tony and Elena. There were too newer, albeit still slightly stained sofas with trundles similar to the ones we had planned sleeping on in the other room. We decided we would just push the sofas together to make a mega bed with retaining walls. It worked quite well.

In the afternoon we all decided to pay a visit to the supermarket to stock up on some basics so that we weren’t dependent on restaurants the entire week. I had been speaking to the staff in Spanish since we arrived and found that we tended to get better information when I did so. I spoke to a couple of bellboys about what was around for shopping and they immediately recommended a nearby American hypermarket chain. I told them we’d rather shop at a smaller local place. They discussed it a bit and, considering the long distance we would have to travel to reach these places and the fact that they would less accommodating to Elena’s wheelchair, they settled on the Mexican version of a different American hypermarket chain. I asked them to call us a taxi that would fit all of us and a wheelchair, but the car that showed up was just a standard compact sedan. We put Elena in the front seat and squeezed our remaining wide bodies into the back seat. It was a snug fit and I was tilted sideways on one hip for the whole ride. The rear bumper scraped the pavement as soon as we went over the first speed bump on our way out of the hotel.

The bellboys had told the driver where we wanted to go, but he immediately tried to convince us to go to the closer, more convenient American store. He offered to wait outside for us if we went there so that we didn’t have to call another taxi and quoted us a decent price for his troubles, so I relented. The driver was very kind and chatty along the way, switching back and forth between Spanish and simple English for the benefit of the other occupants. We shopped and returned to the resort where Charlie made us beef mole and rice with a side of cabbage and cucumber slaw. It was the best meal we’d had since arriving.

Later Charlie and I went to sit by the poolside so that he could smoke and I could read. I was surprised at how cold it was and was ill-prepared in terms of my clothing. It’s not supposed to be cold in Mexico! Several resort staff roamed around surveying the grounds. We had begun to suspect that the pith helmeted staff members were some kind of security team. Charlie spotted Intense Eye-contact Girl lurking nearby and teased, “There’s your girlfriend.”

Friday, January 8, 2016


I have always wanted to visit Mexico, but never imagined that my first trip to the country would take the form that it did. For one thing, I always imagined I would go with my dad. I wanted to visit Monterrey, where the Mexican side of my family came from and where several relatives still live. We would stay with family or friends and get to see the region from a local’s perspective. What really happened was that Charlie's parents invited us to spend a week with them at a beach resort in Mazatlán where they had timeshare weeks to use. I didn't know much about Mazatlán other than the fact that it was a popular destination for American tourists, similar to Cancún or Cabo San Lucas. While this was very different from what I envisioned my first Mexico trip ­– my “heritage” trip, if you will – would be like, I was rather looking forward to a week of lazing about, getting high doses of vitamin D, and eating all the tacos.

We had a well-stocked mileage account with Delta thanks to our previous travels. For this reason, I chose to book a ludicrously long and arduous itinerary with them. I soon regretted that choice and would be kicking myself even harder on the two-stop return journey the following week. We had decided to use our miles to splurge on first-class tickets since this seemed to make long international flights more bearable. If you can afford it, a little physical comfort goes a long way during what is generally a fairly restrictive and uncomfortable way to travel. Our journey started with a red-eye flight departing Seattle at 12:35 AM destined for Minneapolis, of all places. There we would endure a four-hour layover, followed by another four-hour flight to Mazatlán. The first leg of our journey was on an older plane with surprisingly uncomfortable seats for a first class experience. As a result, we barely slept a wink. The only good thing about the seemingly illogical connection was that we got to eat Shanghai noodles at an airport restaurant called Shoyu. It had been recommended by a musician friend who flew through there frequently and ended it up being the best airport food I have ever had.

By the time the second leg of the flight commenced I was exhausted enough to doze off, only to be periodically shaken awake by turbulence. When my body finally gave up on sleeping, I was disappointed to find that only two of the four hours of flight had elapsed. Soon after, the captain announced that we had crossed into Mexico. I leaned over Charlie to get a glimpse of it out the window and saw the barren brownness of the Sonoran desert, veined with the snaking patterns of dried riverbeds. Later, when Charlie got up from his seat to use the lavatory, I took advantage and occupied his empty space, pressing myself against the window as we approached the low greenish foothills where the Sonora meets the western Sierra Madre. The geological features of this area were magnificent. Dark green trees blanketed even the steepest, most serrated edges of the sierra (which also means “saw” in Spanish, by the way). As we moved deeper into the system, the ridges became pointier and the raised areas more folded over one another like a pleated fabric. Occasionally, and in the remotest of areas, a little village would appear atop one of these seemingly impassible areas, in the tiniest of clearings where the ground was just level enough to press together a few modest dwellings. I tried to imagine what life would be like for those people. I knew that at one point my grandmother had lived in a similar place called Mata de Guaje, a tiny community on the outskirts of Monterrey.

As we neared Mazatlán, the sierra began to lie down into vast expanses of bright green farmland. On the horizon was the shining Pacific Ocean, which looked like a band of deep grayish blue set firmly atop the edge of the land. As the plane descended over the fields in the direction of the runway, I saw fast flashes of tiny wooden huts, farm machinery, and other evidence of occupation.

We landed without incident and were ushered through a painless immigration and customs procedure with the usual humorless staff one encounters during these situations. As soon as we were cleared, we exited and were immediately given a sales pitch by an aggressive but slick timeshare salesperson. We didn’t even realize it until he invited us to give him one hour of our time. We declined and instead proceeded to the lobby to meet our driver, a short, broad and very cheerful man named Juanito. He made sure our documents were in order and inquired as to why I could speak Spanish. When he asked whether Charlie knew any, I told him that he worked in a kitchen and had only learned the bad words. Juanito found this very amusing.

While waiting for a few more passengers on our transport to clear customs, we chatted with a nice couple from Virginia who were staying at the same resort as us, the Mayan Palace. They gave us a few pointers for places to eat and activities. Then another tourist wrangler appeared and led us all outside and onto a large charter bus. Out the window, a jeep full of camouflage-dressed, heavily armed Sinaloa state police sped by.

The drive seemed long, but probably didn’t exceed 40 minutes. I looked out the window the whole time, observing locals going to a fro, analyzing the different types of dwellings and businesses. These varied from brightly painted, well-maintained, gated buildings to falling down wooden sheds draped with holey tarps and cardboard. Smatterings of mostly unintelligible graffiti decorated countless walls. The one spray painted tag that stood out to me read, “SKELETOR”. We even drove by a prison complex that had an unnecessarily long name painted in large black letters on one outward facing stone wall. When literally translated, it read something like, “Center for Carrying Out Legal Punishments against Crimes” and underneath, very simply, “Mazatlán Penitentiary.”

When we finally arrived at the resort, a swarm of bellboys on the cusp of being bellmen, who were dressed in blue guayaberas, came out to greet us. It became immediately obvious that they were trying to pile on the courtesy in hopes of earning tips. We tried to insist on schlepping our own luggage so that we wouldn’t bankrupt ourselves paying for simple things we were able-bodied enough to do. The check-in process was long, but the staff was courteous. One of the bellboys escorted us to the suite we would share with Charlie’s parents on the ninth floor of one of the resorts three buildings.

The lobby, pool area, restaurant, and multiple lounges we passed along the way gave us the impression that we were staying in much nicer place than we would ever try to afford on our own. However, when we exited the elevator on the ninth floor, the property immediately took on a feel of a low- to middle-class high-rise apartment building. Our flat was just around the corner and as soon as the bellboy opened the door, the smell of mildew assaulted my nostrils. This odor is typical of places near the ocean, but I have never stayed in a place where it was quite this strong. The bellboy left and we surveyed the scene. It wasn’t dirty, but all of the flooring and furnishings were so old that they looked dirty anyway. One room had a rock-hard king size bed, which would go to Tony and Elena. The other room was dark and windowless and contained a shabby, deflated twin-size sofa bed with a low trundle that could be pulled out next to it. Since the height of these sleeping surfaces differed by about eight inches, cuddling would be out of the question. There were no sheets either. We contemplated sleeping in separate sections on the marginally more comfortable looking L-shaped couch. Our bigger concern was the lack of accessibility. Charlie’s mother Elena uses a wheelchair and would have a hard time maneuvering through the tight spaces of this flat. We didn’t think Charlie’s parents would be pleased when they arrived.

It was about an hour and a half before the parents got to the resort and we spent much of it sitting on the nice furniture in the lobby, swinging at a mosquito that kept trying to land on us. At one point, a young female staff member with a pith helmet walked by. Her unusual headware caught my attention and I inadvertently stared at her. She noticed me, made eye contact, and then held my gaze for longer than was comfortable. Charlie noticed this and then we discussed whether she was looking at him or me (but it was obviously me). I was totally getting a gay vibe from her.

When Tony and Elena arrived, we exchanged warm greetings and then explained the situation about the room. Charlie’s dad, Tony, went to the desk to try to straighten things out since he had called weeks ahead to specifically request an accessible room with a walk-in shower. Those particular rooms were booked up for the next two weeks, of course, but they managed to secure another that would suffice for the evening. Charlie and I would remain in the originally assigned flat that night and the following day we would consolidate into another suite that was better suited to Elena’s needs.

Once the parents were squared away, we reconvened in the lobby to eat dinner at the resort’s main restaurant. The food was decent, but not as amazing as the price indicated it should be. The service was maddeningly slow for how empty it was and our hunger only augmented our annoyance. It took several suggestive stares from each person at our table to get the waitstaff to bring the bill. Bellies full, we retired to our respective rooms for the evening. Charlie lay down on the rock-hard king size bed with his still-shoed feet hanging off the edge and was snoring within five minutes. Shortly after, I settled into the musty linens for what I hoped would not be a fitful night of back torture.