La Vida Simple

By a stroke of good luck (and good friends), we met a couple who asked us to stay in their beach house. For a month. With maid and gardener. For free. And they don’t even have any pets to care for. They just have an easy-breezy, incredibly generous attitude that a house is meant to be lived in, not shuttered up and left to molder. It needs life, love, laughter. We were happy to deliver, deliver, deliver!

I wrote fairly extensively about Playa Blanca and Barra de Potosi in my book and previous blog, so I won’t delve too much into it this time. Besides, there’s not much to relay, since our days were pretty much spent splashing in the pool, walking the beach, reading, writing and, come evening, noshing on fresh seafood as the sun slid down the horizon. With few responsibilities, and no transportation, one soporific day pretty much melted into the next.

Once a hideout of fishermen, turtles and pelicans, Troncones is now a haven of the rich, with dozens of high-end homes sprouting up along the beach.

Mid-way through we did rent a car for a week, just to get some day trips in while we were pet-free. Our first jaunt took us about an hour north to an old favourite, Troncones. When we’d first stumbled upon this stretch of sand about 20 years ago, we had banged and clunked our way in a beat-up old VW bug over the unpaved, pot-holed road, braking for pigs and roosters, to the “town”. Back then it was really just a handful of homes, a couple of lodgings and, I think, one store, where we had bought a six-pack and sat on the beach with a flock of startled pelicans as our only company. Today, there’s a sleek new blacktop that whisks you there in a fraction of the time; you and the hundreds of others who have since discovered this formerly secret tropical hideaway. Now there are B&Bs, hotels, rental homes and retreats, restaurants, grocery stores, T-shirt shops and surf schools. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not Cancun. It’s just not the undiscovered haven it once was. We took another six-pack to the beach, this one bought from one of a multitude of tiendas, sat and watched dogs and fishermen test the waters, then drove to the lovely Inn at Manzanillo Bay and had a couple of tasty, over-priced snacks and drove back. If only time had stood still . . .

Another day we headed a half-hour south to the town of Petatlan, a famous pilgrimage site to the regionally pious. The town is dominated by a big white church dedicated to Padre Jesús de Petatlán which, it’s said, houses an image of Christ carrying the cross. The image has performed miracles upon countless pilgrims who had journeyed here from throughout Mexico. The town is also renowned as a centre of gold, even though it’s not a producer of the metal. No fewer than two dozen gold stands encircle the church, many butting up against one another, all selling pretty much the same designs for the same prices. Nearby is a fairly major archeological dig called La Soledad de Maciel. Apparently the area had been home to three different Mesoamerican cultures for more than 3,000 years, and archeologists had been uncovering rare artifacts for nearly 100 years. More official excavations have only been in the works in the last few years, however.

Another unlucky pop-eyed puffer bites the dust.

Despite all this noble art, culture, religion and history, we had really come to see a much-lauded beach called Valentin. We’d heard it was a short jaunt just outside the town. After driving in circles, we finally asked a traffic cop for directions, which were roughly translated as: go four blocks that way, turn here, there and there, cross the highway, swing around to the left, follow the road for 10 kilometers and you’ll find the beach. Gracias, senor. We drove as he directed and found the road. But “the road” was a one-lane dirt track at the edge of a settlement. Surely that couldn’t be it? We stopped to ask a clutch of senoras seeking shade from the midday heat under a mango tree. Si, si, that is the way, they assured us. Alrighty then, off we go. Nearly an hour and far more than 10 kilometers later, having passed through coconut groves, ranch land, shanty settlements and, curiously, a sign for Alcoholics Anonymous, the road stopped. At a lagoon. Pulled up into the reedy shore were three little boats. We got out, looked around, but there wasn’t a soul in sight. Or a beach. We cursed, punched a tree, got back in the car and headed back down the track. We later learned that yes, there is indeed a beach. But you have to hail one of the local fishermen to take you there, a half-hour ride in his boat to the other side of the lagoon. How one is to know when one of said fishermen would be around to offer that service remained a mystery.

Popular with Mexican families on vacation, Playa Linda is also a sanctuary for lolling crocodiles.

Other short jaunts included a couple of trips into the “big city”, Zihuatanejo, to shop, poke around, and splurge on dinner at one of our favourite restaurants, Il Mare, high on cliff above Madera beach. Another sojourn was to Playa Linda, just north of Ixtapa, to check out the cocodrilo sanctuary. Playa Linda, where you also catch the boats to the popular snorkeling area around Isla Ixtapa, is a favourite of local families, and the cluster of kitschy souvenir shops and thatched restaurants were teeming with vacationing Mexicans. We just wanted to see the crocodiles. We found them under the bridge over the road, dozens of sly, grinning beasts permanently posed for pictures. We snapped a few before it started to pour rain, dashed back to the car and headed back to our own uncrowded sanctuary on Playa Blanca.

This place is a beach house in the truest sense: take 10 steps from the shuttered doors and you’re in the pool; 10 steps from that and you’re standing on warm sand; 10 more steps and the foamy Pacific sloshes around your ankles. Every morning we’d take our coffee outside, settle into lounge chairs, stare at the sparkling sea, and smile at our good fortune. Our first day we spotted a pod of dolphins cruise by, undulating through the waves, hot on the fins of their breakfast just below the surface. Occasionally a fisherman would materialize out of the shimmering heat to cast a small net for little silvery bait fish. An idyllic scene, straight out of a water colour, until one day we noticed that some of these fishermen would drag in their nets, pluck out the fish, drop them into a bucket, and toss what they didn’t want onto the sand.

A local fisherman casts his net on Playa Blanca: puffer fish beware!

Curious, after they’d moved on, we walked onto the beach to see what they’d left behind. Scattered on the shore like trash, little fins flapping, mouths gasping, were several puffer fish. Horrified, we grabbed them by their tail fins to try and fling them back into the surf, but they were so slimy they kept slipping through our fingers and landing with a thud onto the hard, wet sand just short of the tides. So we sprinted into the house to look for some kind of tossing device. We spotted the maid’s dust pan and raced back. We must have looked completely loco, a couple of gringos catapulting puffer fish into the sea. We like to think the fish appreciated it, even if they swam to freedom a tad battered and bruised.

Wasting away again in Margaritaville: our view for the next month.

Every time we walked the beach we had to side-step the bloated corpses of dozens of puffers that had gotten snagged in a fisherman’s net. One night I practiced my numeros counting their carcasses: veintisiete! I could easily have counted to a hundred, but that would have meant 73 more dead puffers, and no one wants that, not even in the name of education. (Si, I committed to learning the language this time, and am proud to say hablo espanol, if only un poco, but it’s un poco mas than last time!) Where was I? Oh yeah. Also called porcupine fish because of their sharp quills, or blow fish because they can ingest so much air and water to inflate themselves into a spiny ball to thwart predators, these pop-eyed puffers are really of no use to humans, unless you want to kill someone. Some species are so poisonous that the toxins in just one fish can snuff out 30 people. Yet the Japanese prize them as a delicacy. If you’re feeling reckless, check the cook’s credentials before you order: only trained, licensed chefs have the expertise to prepare the puffer, and let you live to tell the tale.

We prefer the non-lethal variety of seafood, so every Friday we’d bike up the dirt road about a mile or so to a little shrimp shack called Brisa Mar. Far from the bustling cluster of enramadas at the other end of the beach, with their squealing kids, doleful dogs, overloaded vendors and strolling musicians, Brisa Mar is, as the name translates, a “sea breeze” of serenity, with just a half-dozen plastic tables under a rickety palm-frond palapa. Being low season, we were often the only ones there, our feet in the sand, an ice-cold Bohemia in our hands, and a big plate of the freshest, most succulent shrimp on our plates. The dona who runs the place whips up my standing order of camarones de diabla (devil shrimp: hot!) and Rick’s shrimp quesadilla from inside a cramped, square cement block of a kitchen with a simple flair that would impress a five-star chef. Cost? Six bucks.

Brisa Mar, the best of the “shrimp shacks”, and far from the madding crowd.

One night she brought us a scorpion. Well, she didn’t mean to. She was carrying our beers and a napkin dispenser when something tickled her hand. With the unflappable calm of a surgeon, she held the dispenser at arm’s length, carefully placed our beers on our table without taking her eyes off the napkin holder, then shook the ghastly creature from the back of her hand, and proceeded to stab it to death with her pen. The venomous arachnid had apparently misinterpreted the “nap” part of the word and snuggled inside the dispenser, only to be rudely awakened when she picked it up. After the impaling, we inched closer to gape at the pestilent pest, curled in the sand. Assured it was indeed a goner, we all babbled in a clash of languages at how close our host had come to being felled by a potential sting.

Fresh tacos, made to order over an open fire at Dona Emi’s.

Saturday nights would find us “downtown”, walking along one of about six dusty roads that make up the teeny-tiny village, dodging chickens, bony-hipped dogs and dirty-faced kids kicking a half-inflated soccer ball, to Dona Emi’s place. There is no sign, no hours of operation, and no menu. If her gate’s open, she’s open. You set yourself at one of five wobbly tables (this year she has tiled the dirt floor) and she tells you what you’ll have, as she only cooks three items: pork, chicken or beef. For us, it’s always the pork tacos. While the meat sizzles and spits on the grate over an open fire just a few feet from you, she makes each tortilla by hand as you order. Simple, fresh, delicious. A buck and a half per order of three tacos. BYOB.

One weekend, en route to Dona Emi’s, we skidded our bikes to a stop when we noticed that the small door-front taco stand half way up the road was actually open. We’d always wanted to try it, but she only opened her doors at 8, and that’s too late when you’re walking or biking home in the dark (not because of bandidos, but because of drunk drivers, stray dogs lolling on the road, and a thousand bugs that fly into your face as you’re pedaling). So we grabbed the opportunity, plunked ourselves down at one of the three picnic tables, and ordered chicken-stuffed quesadillas the size of a flattened football. Again, the place has no name, but the proprietor, Chayo, cooks to order over a wood fire while you sit basically in the street, neighbourhood kids and salivating dogs eyeing you from the shadows. A delicious, filling dinner: two bucks.

Another Barra taco stand, literally street food, this one serving quesadillas the size of footballs.

When you’re the only customers in a restaurant, which we almost always were, it really feels like you’re dining in someone’s private home. Which is what some American tourists did recently, albeit quite inadvertently. As the story goes, one night three big, burly, very hungry guys went looking for supper but everything was closed. Cruising the quiet, darkened roads they eventually saw a light. They walked in, grabbed a chair and told their hostess to prepare whatever was fresh. Bewildered, she did as they asked, whipping up platters of fish, chicken, rice and beans. After they’d had their fill, they praised her cooking and asked for the bill. The poor woman told them she hadn’t a clue what to charge them, since this was not a restaurant but her private home . . .

There are, in fact, a handful of cooks who will gladly serve you from their personal kitchens, on purpose, including a transplanted Italian chef on the beach at Playa Blanca, but you usually have to ask around to see who’s still doing it.

The town of Barra is so small there are, naturally, no big supermarkets, only small tiendas that sell the very basics. To stock up, we would hitch a ride into Zihuatanejo with friends, packing our reusable bags and coolers for the cold stuff. On the drive back, we would pull off the highway and onto the road to Barra through Los Achotes. To fortify us for the bumpy, lurching, tire-chewing road ahead, we would pull up to a special tienda, one that had a window kind of like a drive-through. Except this window dispensed cans of ice-cold beer for less than a buck apiece. It’s drinking and driving in the truest sense of the term, but the only penalty you’ll incur if you’re pulled over is to hand over a cerveza to the pursuing policia.

One for the road: a ramshackle tienda selling “the basics”.

For fresh vegetables, we hung a sign on the gate that read Hoy Verduras (vegetables today) to alert the veggie truck that rumbled by every Wednesday and Saturday. The farmer pulls to a stop in a cloud of dust, rings your bell, and you come running out to select from his fresh pickings of the day. He weighs your choices on a portable scale, tallies it all up, and for the cost of a few bucks you fill up your bolsa with farm-fresh produce. For water, we’d unlock the gate, set out our garrafons before 7:30 in the morning (any earlier and they mysteriously disappear) and the water guys (hombres de agua?) would lug the jugs to our door and collect the 13 pesos per bottle (about a buck) on the stoop by the door. One day I mistakenly flagged down the tortilla truck, thinking it was the veggie man. Rather than send him away, I asked for diez tortillas, thinking I’d buy 10 tortillas from his wife in the back. She opened a pail, dug out a stack of piping hot, fresh-made tortillas, bagged them and handed them to me. When I asked, cuanto cuesta?, she frowned and said, “diez”, like I’d asked. Turned out I’d requested 10 pesos’ worth, not 10 tortillas. So for the price of about 70 cents I was now in possession of a couple dozen tortillas that I rarely use. We occasionally hear the horn of the ice cream guy, but I’m never fast enough to catch him. This is no bright gleaming Mister Softee truck with the annoying jingle-jangle that lures kids to the street. This is one guy pushing a cart with a steel drum of one or two flavours and a tower of plain cones who announces himself with a kind of Bozo the Clown blast of a squeeze horn. Has the same effect on kids everywhere, though. Until recently, you could even set out your empty beer bottles and the beer truck would trade them for full ones. Talk about your door-to-door service. These days when you see a Coke truck or a cerveza truck, it’s accompanied by an armed guard. We’re never sure whether they’re vulnerable to cash or product theft.

For fresh fruit, it was yard to door: this house had a banana tree, a lime tree, a papaya tree and a dozen or so coconut palms. It tickled me every time I stepped outside to pull a fresh juicy lime off a tree to squeeze into my iced tea or reached up to knock down a big coconut and hack it open right there in the grass.

Many of our beach walks doubled as trash duty. We’d take a big green garbage bag with us and, halfway down the beach, it would be spilling over with plastic bottles, caps, cups, Styrofoam and, oddly, dismembered Barbie parts. Despite big blue trash bins (although not nearly enough of them), much of the local populace isn’t too interested in a pristine environment. It falls to those who are to clean it up. It gets especially bad when the heavy rains hit and the lagoon at the end of the beach breaks through, surging into the ocean and carrying tons more trash with it. Last year the rains came late, leaving part of the lagoon shallow and hot, which essentially boiled whatever unfortunate fish happened to be stranded there.

One of many uninvited house guests, this scorpion was munching on a very large beetle at the base of our couch.

Because this house was open and unscreened on the main floor, all manner of creepy-crawlies invited themselves in. The very day after the scorpion encounter at the restaurant, I was walking through the living room when my eye detected something not quite right at the base of the couch. On closer inspection I saw that it was in fact the very same type of scorpion we’d seen the night before. Except this one was wrapped around a very large beetle, stinging the life out of it. Better it than me, I guess. Every morning we could be guaranteed at least one land crab would have fallen into the pool, so we’d have to fish him out and toss him over the fence onto the sand. One day I opened the door to a big fat cane toad bleating up at me. Shoo! I said, and he did.

And then there was the vilest of life forms that is the bane of a tropical existence, the cockroach. We didn’t see many of them, thankfully, but these disgusting bugs skitter into even the cleanest, nicest homes to set your skin crawling. And, of course, the star of all irritants, the mosquito. One night the power went out, taking our fans and A/C with it, and we were forced to throw open the unscreened doors and windows, offering ourselves up in the process as unwitting blood donors for the ravenous parasites. And ants. Ants everywhere, no matter how crumb-free and sanitized we (and the maid) tried to keep the place. And rodents. One day I went to gather some clothes on a chair to do a laundry and as I picked up my shorts, out leapt a mouse. In full cliche mode, I jumped on the bed and screamed “eeek!” The mouse darted out the door, leaving behind three little pink bald babies, nestling in my underwear. We didn’t know what to do, so we gathered them up, placed them in a little box and left them by the window where the mama made her escape. We figured surely she’d come back for them, never planning far enough ahead about what we’d do if she did. Sadly, by morning, she had not returned and her newborns had not survived the night without her.

Our favourite Mexican mutt, Patch waits patiently for a playmate.

Happily, there were other, more welcome fur and feathered visitors. Every day at dusk, a pair of dove-like birds (we called them lovey and dovey) would settle on the edge of the infinity pool to drink and splash about; bright yellow birds would dart among the palms; cute little geckos would chirp from the ceilings. Against my better judgment, I fell for a scrawny, forlorn neighbourhood dog that every afternoon would appear out of nowhere, dash across the hot sand to the water’s edge and just sit there, staring out to sea. His fur was a patchwork of white, black and brown, so I took to calling him Patch. Lonely and eager for a playmate, he would wag his tail and trot up to the occasional beach walker or local kid but would invariably get a face full of sand in return. We felt so sorry for him that we began giving him our leftovers, which he gobbled with gusto. What he savoured more, however, was a gentle human touch, a scratch of his head, a soft pat to his bony flank, and a couple of friendly humans to sit and watch the sun set with. He stopped coming the last week of our stay, and I prefer not to think about why. As much as we enjoy the Mexican people, we’ll never be able to understand the attitude many of them have toward dogs. It ranges from indifference to neglectful to flat-out abusive. As Mahatma Gandhi so famously said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” When I think back on Patch, and the thousands more like him whose fates are in the hands of humans, I feel this nation has a ways to go before that kind of greatness.

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