Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Heading home...

While we both agreed that there were parts of home we were looking forward to, it was not easy to say goodbye to this surprising paradise.

We woke at 6 a.m. and loaded up the car in the dark, waved goodbye to the wild ponies and burros, and that was it. Heading north on HWY 200, as the sun crept up over the Sierra Madres, we watched Mexico going about the business of waking up. Dogs lolled in the middle of empty streets, isolated lights turned on in otherwise dark houses, workers and kids in school uniforms waited at remote bus stops, tiendas rolled up metal doors, as the light grew brighter, cars and busses flooded the streets and we rode in on rush hour traffic through the smoky port city of Lazaro Cardenas. I read to Nic about pozole Thursday in Zhuijatinajo, just a couple days too late to try it. Without the looming tropical tempest and dark clouds of our arrival, a week earlier, sun-drenched Michoacan countryside takes on a whole new feel. Even the creepy town we’d ran from, now looks quaint and charming. Not at all The Shining set we’d experienced earlier.

At some point, in between trundling over gi-normous speedbumps (topes!) that slow traffic through towns and near-death (depending on who you ask: passenger or driver ;) passing experiences, we go a little car-crazy -- we get reception for a bad American 90’s station (ie. I bust out in with bad Rod Stewart lyrics) otherwise we hungrily search for any Mexican music available. Thanks to countless hours on the road, Nic’s mastered the impromptu, heart-wrenching Mexican ballad thanks to a tutorial on the elements of a classic song, which include: mi amour, mi corazon, mi alma, llorar, tengo nada, me dije…

We arrive in Puerto Vallarta in just over 10 hours of straight driving with only one voluntary stop for coca-cola and gas. The only other stops were military checkpoints, which we’ve gotten used to, as much as you can get used to kids with guns respectfully (always, very respectfully) requesting permission to search your car. The methods of searching are still a mystery – they range opening bags and checking under seats to looking at bags and opening doors, to (the most interesting) a small black box with an old-school antennae that one soldier carries while walking from the front of car to the back of the car, repeat, and send you on your way. It was pretty uneventful.

We arrive in Vallarta, determined to book (for our last night) the most ostentatious hotel we could find on the Nuevo strip. Not to be disappointed, we found the audacious Fiesta Americana, complete with big-ass palapa lobby (this is at least 4 stories high) with stream running through, potable agua, and American and Canadian flags flying with the Mexican flag. Despite being surrounded by these "comforts" of home before heading out, it still took some adjustment to get used to talking in English, roads without topes, and "50 degrees and cloudy." :)

Monday, September 29, 2008

That Sharky Feeling

It was our last afternoon today. The waves have mellowed further still. Nic’s determined we make the most of our last day, and while I loudly complained about my deflated arms, I agreed we had to do it. We had to surf just one more time today. (Such problems is life) Without any afternoon storm clouds to veil its light, the sun beat down with unusual intensity and prompted a mini-mariachi dance just to get from the black sand past the sea flotsum to the cool water.
Perspiring from just the short walk down, we paddled out one last time. A hot offshore breeze lacerates the gentle afternoon waves, little dappled cuts that sparkle with each movement. They reflect the pale-blue cloudless sky. In the afternoon sun, everything takes on a silver-tint. Staring straight ahead, paddling, it starts to feel like sky and sea are all that exist anymore.
It’s like we’re all old friends now. Those in the lineup smile or wave, or the Texans just call out a celebratory, “Nic and Joya!” as we catch up on all the nothing that has passed since the morning’s session.

Tired, I don’t do much. I try for a few but can’t seem to make my arms move like they should anymore. Time passes and I wonder if I’ll end my last session with the paddle of shame back to shore, so far away.

A wave rolls in and feel it pass under me and watch it roll to the shore, leaving behind a smooth surface with only a few bubbles of foam to mark the passing. It flops and struggles in the water then. Something dark and big. The water boils, smoothes and another wave rolls through and wipes it out completely.

Frozen, this guy looks at me – you saw that? Don’t know what that was but it was big.
I saw it. We watch the spot, but nothing more. We conclude it’s a turtle. But I’ve made up my mind it’s time to be done. The next wave comes in. The first of a big set. Heartpounding, knowing that if I don’t catch this one, I’ll get washed right over the shark-turtle spot. Shiver. I wave my tired arms as fast as I can, my heart pounds, as I’m pulled up and up. I slide down as I try to stand and spray dusts my shoulder and head. It’s not pretty, but on accident, I catch the biggest wave of my week. Thanks to a shark attack that never happened.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

It’s probably not gonna kill ya…

It’s an amazing wave. Steady, just strong enough, and long. Both Nic and I have caught some fabulous rides. A soft up, a pop and you’re off. Free and clear of the water, pushed down the line for what feels like eternity, as gentle tropical breezes roll over you. Breathless and smiling, triumphant.

Between those moments of glistening perfection, we’re both discovering pockets of absolute frustration. Watching the more-experienced pick off wave after wave with ease as I try for just una mas and my weary body fails again. On this particular morning, my arms and morning optimism had slowly given out after too many blundered attempts. Despite a mad scramble to the outside, I got pummeled by a rogue set. One after another they consumed me. Sputtering and tired, bleeding from a fin that cut a line from my kneecap to heel, I make a beeline out of the lineup to I catch my breath.

As he paddles by, on a flower-covered surfboard that matches his white-haired wife’s flower board, he tells me I’m too far out. You need to get inside, these waves here—probably not gonna kill ya.

Leathery, tanned skin accentuate ageless bright blue eyes. He’s right. I smile then wearily fall in-line behind him, as he continues.

It might look scary, but you gotta keep pushing yourself. Sure, you’ll get pounded a couple times, but that’s the only way to get better. Don’t worry about those other guys out there, they’ll go around ya. Now, they definitely ain’t gonna kill ya. These waves here – he points to the fresh sea-green swells curling in – probably not gonna kill ya either.

My last few years of surfing: The long drives, damp wetsuits, cold mornings in colder water, carefully picking my way--on a rainy day--through slippery sandstone cliffsides and rocks to surf with Steve and Leslie. Like a football coach, Steve points to my position and shouts orders above surfs roar. Don’t be scared to take a few to the head, he says. Leslie laughs. I paddle with all my strength, until the moment I think I might stand a chance…and then I pull back. The fear of falling, of taking one—any one--on the head, is too great and I would rather feel the wave pass through me--strong, powerful, up and over, and a gust of icy backwash to the face—than to risk falling into those churning jaws if I fail to stand up. Here in Mexico, I imagine it’s the same surf ghosts that haunt me.

Before paddling off, he tells me, You gotta push yourself, you gotta challenge yourself, give it all you got – if it shakes you up, you’re doing right and it’s probably not gonna kill ya.

Thinking of the increasing complexity of my life, of late. The gut-wrenching stress and sickening fear that has haunted my days and nights of the last couple years as I tried to pick my way through the maze of my carefully lived life, of late. I remembered when it wasn’t this way. When I was 17, dreaming of 30, and anything was possible. Now I’ll be 30, I have done what I thought one should do by 30, and I laugh at the ways I see myself resolutely clawing my way back to the daring vitality, the happy simplicity of 17. And, perhaps it’s really that simple. Perhaps there are two kinds of things in the world: those that will kill you and those that probably aren’t gonna kill you.

It’s the refrain that replays in my head as I lay down to paddle, slowly at first, then after a quick look back, I arch my back higher, I whip my arms back and forth until my whole body moves in unison with the intent of catching this wave. There is nothing else. There is no world, no other people, no “what happens if I fail and fall” – there is only this wave and this wave only. As it pushes, and green walls slide up, I’m pounding the water with all my strength. And just when I think I’ve lost it, I’m hoping to my feet and whipping the board around to bear left, left, left to the warm, sea-green expanses awaiting.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

In the lineup.

The first couple mornings of surfing were like no other I've experienced.

A procession of pristine green swells roll through the bay at measured internals. I’ve never seen such an over-abundance of perfect waves or better riders.

My favorite riders are the old ones. They’re each withered, white-haired and perfect candidates for languishing in idle retirement – but instead they dance on waves with an energy and grace that could only result from decades of practice. Shrill laughs, jokes, and loud submarine-style “aah-ohhh-gaww” cheer anyone on a wave. I’m surfing amongst 60’s surf legends and they’re making submarine calls with every wave they catch?! It’s ridiculous and refreshing. Before leaving town, my bro and sis, Axel, and Anya, had told us some colorful stories about them. Now to see them in person is like seeing a favorite cartoon brought to life. Corky Carroll, with a tuft of hair and bulbous balloon navel (the result of some old-age deficiency) pulls his red rash guard up to his neck in defiance. He surfs the biggest wave yet, with complete comfort. Tim Dorsey, follows suit in a speedo. A woman, with white-blonde hair that radiates against her leathery brown tan, rides a flowered board that matches her husband’s and catches waves that make them holler even more. They yell that she looks like Ms. Venture County 1968. She smiles slides down the wave, red toenails tapping down the board to the dangle over the nose.

They don’t let anything stop them – nature, age, youth, or otherwise. It’s like finding out that, all this time, Peter Pan’s vacation home is in Mexico. While the bodies are old, there’s a youthful spirit, goodwill, and positive energy to the group, that is unlike any other and it’s contagious.(It strengthens my resolve to surf till I die, even if I never get past mediocre.) Everyone in the lineup, walking on the beach, drinking Corona from sweating glass bottles from enramadas are some of the friendliest we’ve met. It’s the aloha spirit of the 60’s, says the most talkative of the bunch, You don’t find that around anymore, but in special places. We keep it alive here.

He’s pleased that we appreciate it. He rattles off stories of building beach houses, surfing at Middleton when it meant dodging military police to catch the perfect wave, the broken neck and Vietnam, ancient southwest narratives, and the book he’s going to write.

Later that night, we see Dorsey, walking the beach at sunset in only a navy blue Speedo and straw hat. He’s followed by a pack of neighborhood dogs of all shapes and sizes, all panting and jumpy, joyfully clamoring for his attention. He talks to them lovingly as he herds them along. He throws a stick and 5 or 6 dogs tumble into the surf after it. As he walks towards his beachside casita with a couple resident goats complacently chewing the front vegetation, he honks the rubber horn (“ahh-oohh-gaww”) on the top of his straw hat, as the happy hounds chase after him.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Getting Settled...

In one direction it’s vacation casitas and rustic cabanas. In the other direction, there’s a handful of two story vacation villas, in various stages of completion. In every direction, but west, there are coconut palm trees.

In the west, the ocean lives. It rolls and breaks at one point, but is otherwise relatively flat. During the day, mellow waves steadily deposit woody bits of the inland along with all sorts of plastic refuse. It collects in piles that cover the beach. In front of enramada Illianet’s, to clear a path to the beach, they rake the wood in long piles and burn it throughout the night, giving the dark sand an even darker charcoal black finish in the morning. Here we talked to Mario, the short, stout, gruff overseer of the new two story casitas behind Illianet’s about renting the top floor with a gorgeous oceanview for the next week after making up our minds that it would be worth the extra pesos to spend the rest of our vacation in relative luxury.

When we return from a trip to Xtapa to get cash, I detect Mario’s grumpiness softening to something like indifference. He makes a point to introduce us to Humbert, who we talk into renting us boards for $10/day starting in the morning. That night the sun sets and cows, one burro, and ponies (real wild ponies! after some heated debates, even Nic had to eventually agree, these are wild ponies.) graze beneath the coconut trees.

Adjusting to surf time

We stop at Barra de Nexpa to take in the pounding surf. Only a handful of short-boarders are attempting the rough, muddy wave. The rest of the town is deserted. Up and down the beach, empty palapas that should host throngs of sunny, euphoric tourists stand, dark and unwelcoming. Without the distraction of lively people, it’s eerie and strange. We leave promptly.

The next stop is another small beach-side village. The magic wave we’ve heard about fulfills all stories and peels down the line for minutes on end. It’s mind-blowing. We greet two surfers. They happen to be from Bellingham, WA. They drove all the way down and are “stuck” until their van get’s fixed. How long have you been here?

Saltwater bloodshot eyes look at us. What day is it today?

He asks the question like one might ask you your name. With casual indifference, because it doesn’t really matter whether you respond with “john” or “joya”, it’s a mere technicality. I have a hard time remembering. Jen and Eric left yesterday the 22, Sunday.

Nic chimes in with today’s Monday the 23rd.

We look at them, eagerly. As they look at eachother, assessing time that's come and gone between morning beach swells, high tides and afternoon siestas.

Five weeks? We’ve been here five weeks.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Thank you, Marc Anthony!

The next town, 20 miles away, down a dirt road is a collection of shacks and one out of place two story hotel. It’s peaceful and welcoming in a simple and white-washed way. Its pool dares to actually glisten in the evening light and a tiny restaurant serves a couple guests – a stark contrast to the previous place. On a huge outside wall is written the hotel's slogan, un lugar differente por jente differente. Literally, a different place for different people.

We head to the office and find nothing but a Spanish sign to interpret. We head to the restaurant to inquire about a missing office manager. I explain we’re looking for a room for the night. The waitress rattles off a response I can only capture bits and pieces of. But I understand she wants me to try the office, there is someone there to help you.

I look at her, how to explain she must help us as there is no one else! Oh the drama!

Before I can blink, out pop the words, “Pero no hay nadie…” It’s part of the refrain of my favorite Marc Anthony song, with a hot latin beat that makes you want to salsa what your momma gave ya: No hay nadie como ella, tan dulce, tan bella...!(There is no one like her, so sweet, so beautiful...!)

She repeats it, “No hay nadie?

I nod.

I can hardly believe the day has come when Hispanic pop culture is going to save the day! Her brow furrows, she gets it. She walks off to track down the office manager who helps us to a simple room complete with air conditioner, sans evil spirits.

Thank you Marc Anthony!

Escape from Michoacan

Driving at night in Michoacan is not recommended, per the Lonely Planet. So we pull off at San Illu…, a small beach puebla outside of Manzanillo. Off the one main dirt road through town stand an assortment of brightly painted hotels, with dark windows, and empty enramadas with table upon table set for dinner with no one around. The place is deserted. Not sure what to do next, I pick the white hotel with the pretty pool. (it was such an oasis in PV). As we drive by a woman with dark hair and blue eyes waves us in to park. Behind her, in the doorway of her personal house, sits a boy who just stares at us. She overcompensates for his moroseness and greats us with such Spanish enthusiasm that I have to ask her to repeat slowly as my travel tired brain can hardly translate. Yes, she has rooms.

Excitedly she leads us past an algae-green pool (not quite the refreshing oasis), half finished palapa, surrounded by half-finished tile, and stacks of dusty shuttered table umbrellas and down a tall (twice Nic, I swear) but narrow hallway with no lights or windows. In the dark, there’s light once she opens the door to a gigantic, musty white room with a tiny window and the only decoration of two big beds. It was simple, it probably would have been fine. But there was no accounting for the strange feeling of being there. She looks at us expectantly when she asks for 600 pesos. Nic asks to see the other room, she looks at him funny. I try to ask to see the other room and she takes us to see something more strange. A maze of 3 or 4 rooms all connected through dark corners, more tiny windows musty smells and ill-placed beds (including one single bed in the main entrance). We’re both trying to imagine sleeping here. Later Nic notes it’s all like something out of a bad remake of The Shining. But he politely tells her we will go to see other hotels first. She looks at him funny. I try to tell her we want to go look at other places first. She lowers the price on this, her finest room to 700 then 600 then 400 pesos and waits. I thank her as we escape. She continues calling out after us after we’re in the car.

Her son still sits on the doorstep and stares at us as we drive away.

Sorry to disappoint but so happy to escape the strange, deserted dark town.

Through Michoacan

We leave Nayurit, for the sparsely populated state of Michoacan. The jungle grows to the very edges of the shoulder-less two lane road. Butterflies float on white-wings, the size of my hands. Every shade of green in existence seems to grow on the rugged mountainsides, accented by Fanta-orange colored blossoms of something exotic. The common mode of transportation is to hop in the back of a pickup truck and hold on! Workers, families, schoolkids, even the policia can be seen cruising this way, around corners, up hills and at top speeds on the carreterra. The area becomes increasingly remote and the jungle stretches on forever. The sky grows dark as it births the next tropical storm. Empty enramadas (the wall-less palapa shelters) are the only sentinel for miles upon miles of rugged beach break. More often the occasional simple house is made from woven sticks and coconut tree slabs. Rotund vacas and brown-eyed burros stand alongside the highway, chewing back the abundant vegetation, while merely side-stepping cars, if they make a move at all. As navigator, my eyes routinely search the sidelines and I see my first of many “sleepy” burros (as in “ah, look at the burro not moving—he must be very sleepy!’) on the side of the road, bloated and upside down, with now-leathery cartoon legs sticking straight into the air. The desperate image branded on my mind the rest of the journey.

Children and workers walk along the white lines of the highway-turned-sidewalk, on their way to something. Our car approaches and, as if on cue, they all take a step off the road to simultaneously and completely disappear into the jungle. Where people were, only stalks of 5’ jungle grass wave. Our car trundles down a newly deserted road. The villagers only reappear and resume their walk after we’ve passed. It’s a strange sight that re-plays again and again as we cruise along.

We glide through Manzanillo, a big shipping port surrounded by row after row after row of cement track homes, compact, sunset-pink or colorless-gray, with the universal black water bins on top.

Buen Provecho y Banos

Armed with a couple maps that say conflicting things about the path ahead, we triumphantly buzz out of Puerto Vallarta, through the cliff-side town of Mismaloya and Boca de Tomatlan, past Mediterranean-inspired estates and cinderblock shacks. We stop for food at a roadside town. The way the lady never volunteers English but waits for me to use my Spanish makes me think that they don’t seem many tourists this way. The way she quickly rattles off a response makes me realize that my Spanish has been mistaken for fluency. It’s exciting to rely on the words we’ve only used mostly for fun, up until now. We sit in a small back room, off the highway. Cement walls are painted turquoise with large pinatas for decoration (A traditional horse and Shrek?) Almuerzo of delicious chicken, soft corn tortillas and rice is conducted completely in Spanish. While eating, an older Mexican cowboy walks by and wishes us buen provecho. A second follows with a dignified limp, a curious look, and a doff of a cowboy hat as he wishes us buenos dias.

Another part of the small-town experience: el bano. A promising sign points to a door, that heads outside. Walking through the door, I’m expect to see another sign that leads to another door, but instead find myself surrounded by four cement walls of the neighboring buildings, with only a thin, low-hanging, hole-ridden tarp sheltering my activities from the heavens above and world around. I look around me and feel like I’m the subject of one of those brain-teaser jokes: a girl’s in a cramped, outdoor bathroom, with only a toilet with no handle, a barrel of rainwater, and a small bucket. How does she flush the toilet?

Answer: fill the bucket with rainwater, dump the water in the toilet, and the toilet auto-magically flushes!

I felt like a winner washing my hands and encourage Nic to try out the bano.

Escape from Puerto Vallarta

After an afternoon of hiliarious pool aquatics (if only we had a waterproof camera to capture the magic), mediocre street food, testing out the quality vendedore merchanise (Nic in Prada) and an evening stroll along Puerto Vallarta's malecon (or waterfront street), we headed back to the hotel. As if knowing it was their last day in paradise, angry travel gods hurled an impressive and hair-raising display of thunder and lightning down the jungle mounts. The next morning, Jen and Eric were well on their way home, our plan was to take a cab to the airport and haggle with bevy car rental agents on a 4x4 for the next leg of the trip, ambiguously called the “Mexican road trip” subject to routine downsizing. The night before we were laughingly compared to a European visitor Eric had once known who had flippantly rattled off a driving itinerary that included driving to Las Vegas from Seattle then hopping over to Los Angeles, then back to Seattle, all in one week. Despite our public transportation independence, we’d definitely under-estimated the time it would take to get anywhere and to give us more than 12 hours of surfing in south Mexico, we tossed aside glamorous Oaxaca and the tequila fields of Guadalajara, our only intent was to reach the next good surf town.

We got as far as taking a cab to the airport before things started to go awry…or merely get more adventurous! Spanish small talk leads to our driver swerving off the road to drive through a dilapidated gate to an even more dilapidated and dark rental car agency building where his friend works. Supposedly his friend can give us a good deal, much better than the airport we’re told. Two hours later we’re rattling down the road in an oversized white Jeep with bad gas mileage, flimsy plastic windows with a flickering “check the engine” light that we’re assured is ok. 10 or so hours of driving in remote areas ahead of us, Nic’s the first to point out the obvious that this is never going to work. He pulls our first Mexican U-Turn from the far right hand side of the road. (Mexican Driving Tip: there is no such thing as a left hand turn lane or suicide middle lane. The inner lanes of highways are reserved for non-stop traffic only. Any turns or turn-arounds are made by exiting to one of the far right lanes, waiting, and then turning left).

It took some searching to find the literal whole-in-the-wall we’d rented the car from. But we did return the Jeep to a disappointed but understanding man. Credit card slips in my hand, we march out to catch a cab to the airport and back to our original plan. We divide and conquer the rental agencies at the airport, settling on the third inquiry (who likely overheard the prices we declined at other places) and got us into a trusty, comfortable 4x4 for a couple hundred less than the other guy. We agree that we’ve learned an important lesson today: don’t succumb to pressure to purchase something you don’t really want.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Baila Morena!

Tuesday's Independence Day also came complete with traditional dancing! Troupes of school-aged girls lined up, black-brown hair pulled back into buns flowing with colorful ribbons, to match colorful skirts that swirled like something every girl's dreams are made of. They swirled and twirled their way around stage, clapping and dancing, graceful and playful. Families, cowboys, workers, tourists, all gathered around el centro to watch. Teenage boys, in saggy pants and trucker hats, whistled and shrieked from the sidelines. It was beautiful.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Dogs of Sayulita

Like we've said before, there are lots of dogs in Sayulita. Occasionally over the last couple weeks I've snapped off a few photos of the local population to share some of our canine friends with you.

After seeing all these mutts, one thing stands out.

No dog is better than this:

So much so, that I find myself looking at this page more and more. But really, we already have a dog. And sadly, Joya already has cats, so he is not a good fit there.

There does remain one other person in our travel party, and we think he needs to adopt this poor beach dog seeking out lasting companionship. Of course he won't, but if you think he should bring him home, feel free to lay on the guilt in the comments.

Flat Days

Sadly, not every day in Sayulita brings waves, and the past few have been exceptionally flat. Twice yesterday we went out, hoping against hope to catch a wave and both times we returned without a single ride. And it was worse than just sitting there waiting. A strong off shore wind made it difficult to enjoy our time out, constantly having to paddle through rough chop and fighting to keep your balance.

The day was quiet in other ways too. We noticed that most shops in town were closed, and although things have always been sleepy due to it being off-season, it was unusually so. We later found out why. A local husband and father was electrocuted the night before, dying before help could come. The entire town turned out for his funeral and procession, men carrying his casket around the town, once, twice, countless laps over the course of the afternoon. In tow were his friends and grieving family, the whole town really. Two traditional Mexican brass bands, with more passion than precision, played surprisingly upbeat polka beat songs. Although this is the second funeral we've seen pass by, this one had far more passion, it was clear this was a man who everybody not only knew, but liked in this tiny town.

As we sat watching them file towards Playa de Muertos we reflected on how funerals are such private affairs in the states. I'm sure people die in our neighborhoods every week as well, but we rarely find out, and even more rarely witness their funeral. Perhaps it's the small town that makes it different here, but I suspect it says more about the Mexican culture: of close knit communities and even closer knit families. That contrary to the stoic ideal of America, here passion, good and bad is more accepted, perhaps even encouraged. There is something special about not just witnessing but participating in the passing of a good neighbor or friend, something we might just have lost a bit in our busy high tech lives, a real connection.

Los Postres de Sayulita

It only took a week deprived of chocolate and dessert before I started earnestly seeking them out.  I started with packaged Oreos from the nearby Tienda.  Coming away completely unsatisfied, I started to hit the harder stuff with homemade chocolate cake with 3 types of milk from the bake sale type stand in the plaza.  Since soggy chocolate cake isn't quite my style, I was soon visiting the local ice cream stores.  There I found satisfaction in a double scoop sugar cone and "nieves" or ice cream bars lightly covered in chocolate with coconut.  And for a reason I cannot understand, the coconut here is addictive.  I will order something just to eat the Mexican coconut coating the treat.

Which leads to the famous, original Chocobanana.  Which, by the way, was a total let down.  The chocolate and coconut barely made this worth finishing... barely.  And then we discovered Robert's bakery.  Open only from 5 pm to 10 pm, with the menu changing every night, Robert is a fabulously flamboyant English speaker in this earthy Mexican town.  But it was here I was finally able to satisfy my discerning sweet tooth with giant  brownies, marble cake with chocolate frosting, and an almond praline cookie with the texture of a boiled cookie.  Needless to say, since the discovery of Robert's, I have been making a nightly walk by for that night's dessert and enough for tomorrow morning's breakfast.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Joining the Family

The other day we were sitting out on the porch looking out across the roof when I noticed something large crawling to my right. Much to my dismay, our new friend Max, determined to come inside and visit us, had found roof access and was making his way on to the porch! Concerned for his well being we've decided perhaps its best to just leave the door open for him.

However, we can't just let random street dogs run rampant through our borrowed casa. Nic propositioned that we just go the whole nine and give Jose a bath -- so we did.

And by we, I mean Nic. It became increasingly clear as Nic lathered up the old boy that he is a kept dog. He took it very well as if he knew that by putting up with it he would be rewarded in short order. And he was right. Not only did the fresh fur earn him free passage into the house, he was rewarded with a fine spread of doggy appropriate food. He had crunchy kibble adorned with day old wood-fired pizza (okay, I admit it, I had pizza while watching the Seahawks game on Sunday at Don Pedro's). To finish it off, a crunchy taquito de pollo.. mmm.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Procession

From our second story perch, we rested or read or drifted in and out of afternoon siestas while daily Sayulita life came and went, on the streets below us. It's neither quiet nor loud -- just life.

We don't even look up when a shrill burst of a trumpet blares from down below. Likely a passing car, with the volume cranked up. Then the single trumpet is, one by one, joined by a chorus of other horns. Crisp, clean and strong. I look at Nic, excited thinking about what it might be, it sounds like live music!

He shakes his head.

I sit. The horns overpower every other possible sound. No birds chirp, no babies cry, no motors hum, no other sound exists but their slow tune. I hop out of my seat to the balcony just to see.

"You guys." is all I can whisper over my shoulder.

The cobblestone street below us is a sea of silent people. All, slowly walking, down towards the sea -- to the playa de los muertos. All, intent on the road ahead and the cream colored Escalade that leads the procession. Behind this simple procession of people, behind the rickety truck carrying two walls of red and white roses, come the band. Shiny gold cowboy shirts, tan slacks, slicked hair and horns, belting with all their might the song that hushes the crowd (and tourists alike).

We sit in silence, observing theirs. It's breathtaking. An honest and personal moment, suddenly shared to all. A glimpse into someone else's life. A glimpse into someone else's death. No poetry to quote, I only had a cliche feeling of being "inextricably bound" to my neighbor in that moment. We talk of dia del los muertos, the comparatively ornate tradition of caring for the dead, the bittersweet belief that on that day the departed loved ones walk among us once more, and just the seemingly relative comfort with death that's distilled in hispanic cultures. It seems like it's not something to fear, but merely the passing of life, into...the next stage of that life, death.

(Very guiltily I sneak a couple photos after they've turned their heads so we'll remember this moment.) Sometimes, in the midst of travels and the desparate pursuit of relaxation, it's easy to forget that around you continuously swirls the lives of others in their own unique way...and long after you're gone, the dance continues.

As promised..

Here's the video of the dancing horses, live music and just general partying going on last night.

¡Viva Mexico!

¡Viva México!

I was pleased to discover that we accidentally traveled during a holiday season here in Mexico. As Wikipedia can attest, a common misconception in the United States is that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico's Independence Day. Instead it is actually September 16, which is the most important national patriotic holiday in Mexico. The party really begins on the 15th of September.

According to the young doctor that treated me earlier in the week, the 15th is when Mexicans celebrate by performing what he called "The Shout." The purpose, to honor Hidalgo y Costilla’s battle cry declaring a revolution against the Spanish (oddly enough, his cry wasn't recorded, so nobody knows precisely what was said). It is actually formally known as Grito de Dolores (or the Cry of Dolores which is the town where the cry was made). He made this declaration sometime in the night between the 15th and 16th so in proper fashion, citizens of today flock to the streets in the evening and revel into the night. A huge amount of people flocked to Sayulita to celebrate. I can only imagine what it was like in a large city.

Things got started as the emcee shouted
something and then the crowd responded each time with an enthusiastic "Viva!". It then ended with Mexico getting the viva treatment three times. What ensued after that both delighted and amazed me. However, I don't have the pictures or video to show you -- and I just can't put what we witnessed into words, but I will give you a hint. The good news is Nic got some of it on video and will share it with you once we figure out how to use youtube. :)

The following morning it was the children's turn to show their appreciation for their country. Children from various grade levels lined the streets while they performed color guard ceremonies, patriotic recitations, and a shout of their own. After this, they gathered into the plaza for traditional Mexican dances and re-enactment of the beginning of the revolution -- which incidentally ran roughly a decade after the initial shout in 1810.

Everybody was draped in the colors of the flag, but this little girl's dog really took the cake. Other's marked the occasion by wearing green, white, and red streamers in their hair. One thing I've learned over the last 24 hours is that Mexican's really know how to throw down. This town transformed overnight from a sleepy village to a crazy party overnight and then back again -- just in time to show a sublime respect for the history of their country.

From what I could tell, before both last night's and this morning's reveling came a public history lesson. The speakers blared to the packed plaza the events leading up to Mexican Independence. If only I understood Spanish then perhaps I could have learned something. What I did learn however, is that the story of how this country came to be is hearts and minds of every citizen and there is no reason to think it won't make it to future generations.

Monday, September 15, 2008

That big package from the store.. (Pt 3)

As anyone with a modern laptop knows, they run hot. So hot in fact, that manufactures no longer call them laptops, but instead 'notebook' computers, because unless you are wearing asbestos pants, having them on your lap just isn't going to work.

As Eric pointed out, a real part of this trip is to get some work accomplished as well and sometimes there just isn't enough counter space. These MacBook pros run so hot that often having them even on a tablecloth seems a bit unwise. Commercial cooling solutions are available but we are in Mexico, so we had to come up with something else.

Which of course wasn't hard, since we still have a giant bag of inedible wafers. A little bit of carving with the knife, and presto, we have an elevated platform to help our high performance computing run as cool as the night.

Thanks inedible wafers!

Modern Conveniences

Walking through Sayulita for the first time it definitely feels like a town that time forgot. I can only imagine what it was like a short 10 years ago before it was generally discovered as a tourist destination. A few different times we've discussed what we would miss the most if we picked up and just moved here. Jen focused on supermarket item variety. It's true that the scant amount of items in the grocery store can get your attention. However, I think I would gladly forgo half of the aisles at Safeway for fresh pineapples, mangos, and avocados. Throw in some warm tortillas waiting for you by the register and it makes it easier to forgive the store for not having 30 different kinds of napkins.

Nic seems to feel perfectly safe taking the plunge especially knowing a big town like Puerto Vallarta is only an hour away by bus. I personally think I would miss the fresh cool air of the pacific northwest the most. That, and I'm pretty confident that I will never be an accomplished enough surfer -- or at least I'm not willing to put in the time to become one.

Even with its homes sans walls, poor plumbing, and plethora of beach peddlers, Sayulita still provides enough for even this geek to feel comfy. I mean, with WiFi and a laptop it's hard to feel too terribly disconnected. I've not let it interfere with my goal of feeling unplugged for the brunt of this trip. However, this is the first time since I've had kids that I've been away from them for more than a weekend and being able to video conference with them by virtue of the internets is good for all of us.

This town almost forces you to have a laid back vacation. So much so, that my number one goal for the day today was to do some laundry. And by do my laundry, I mean pay some nice lady $45 (that's $4.50 USD) to do it for me. It does make me feel a little bit guilty. I guess I should try not to feel too much guilt as my tourist dollars are greasing the wheels of this small town economy. Between the daily housekeeping, eating around town every day, and the laundry service we are doing our part to help folks provide for their families.

There are many parts of Sayulita I wish I could bring home with me. While Sayulita may be short on modern conveniences and variety, what it does provide it does so very well.

Hard at Work

As most of you know, none of us down here have a job. I guess we are all a bunch of lazy lima beans.

That's not to say we are without responsibilities though. While we spent a good chunk of our first week relaxing and letting the lazy flow like a busted sewer pipe into the Pacific, eventually we will start spending some time actually doing something that perhaps might resemble productivity. While some may say it's a shame to spend even a minute on anything other than hardcore vacationing, it's not fair to call a lot of what we do here "work."

One of the beauties of working for yourself is you work when, how, and on what you want. This allows you to work at a higher level than what is possible when work is shoved into a cubicle at a typical nine-to-fiver. Not only does this generally yield higher quality, but higher productivity as well. And besides, we've got the best office around.


With Joya's arrival we have now moved to the second floor of the building. It's quite a bit more spacious and has two full bedrooms at the sacrifice of not having as much outdoor space under palapa roofs. One night just before we left and as Eric was going to bed he commented that he had found a scorpion skin in the bathroom. Although we knew they could be found around here, we hadn't seen any signs of one yet. I went to check it out and sure enough it looked like the carcass of a scorpion moving up in the world, but I thought just maybe I saw it twitch a bit. I quickly nudged it with my finger and it was off, starting to scurry about. This was hardly a large specimen, but they do say the smaller they are the more dangerous, so we made sure to give it its proper respect.

In the end we used a door stop to put it out of its misery like the overgrown bug it was. All this served a nice reminder as to why flip flops are the footwear of choice here, as scorpions can't go hide in them at night for a morning surprise.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Another one bites the dust...

And so it comes about that I too have fallen victim to the inevitable Mexican ear infection.  I awoke to a throbbing ear "headache", with the occasional "someone is stabbing me with a needle" pain.  After Eric had his recheck at the doctor this morning, we decided that I would be diagnosed similarly, and we bought a spare set of his antibiotics and ear drops for me.  Unfortunately, later that afternoon, ear aching persistently causing me to whine incessantly, I visited the doctor.  Surprise, surprise - I should take the same drugs as Eric!  Good thing I had already started them this morning.

Welcome to the circle of love Jen...


After one stomach-wrenching lurch, the plane landed in PV. I was finally here and after the events from the last couple days (quitting a toxic job to try working on my own...from Mexico for the next couple weeks), I was feeling pretty good. I stepped through the sliding "exit" doors, tinted white, to be received by a throng of taxi drivers and tourist officials, clamoring for my business, any business. "You want a taxi-I give you good price" "Where you going, pretty lady" "You need a bodyguard, senorita?"

I smiled, No gracias. Pienso que estoy bien.

Creo que si. Buenos suerte y buenos tardes, senorita.

I wait for the bus and practiced chatting in Spanish with the man who guessed I was headed to Sayulita and very formally wished me a "most magnificent time", in carefully practiced English. As we sped past crumbling bulidings, new construction and pickup trucks full of dusty laborers, I practiced talking to the woman who sat down next me after I smiled to her and carefully said, Este asiento esta abierto." I practiced talking to the man with a portly Corona-belly, who reclined in a lawn chair in the middle of the road, halfway up the steep hill I'd trudged up, searching for the Casa Suenos Del Mar. He pointed up further up the road to a woman who spoke English. Together we pieced together some direction that involved me descending and climbing up another hill. There I practiced talking to a man who pointed me in the right direction, all in Spanish. Again and again I stop, confused by the nameless streets that force me to trade palabras with people of all sorts. Perspiration drips from my forehead by the time I arrive at the house where my friends are staying. Hot, sleep deprived, lost -- but happy. I made a lot of mistakes, but I revelled in the beauty of a language shared, even if it takes a couple (or 14) tries to get it right. The simplicity of shared smiles amongst strangers, as we fumbled to put words into sentences that could be understood and passed around.

Somewhere in my head, tumbles the words of that one poem I learned in 10th grade. Now I can only remember the first couple lines in Spanish, en el muro calor, paloma de cemento, sin embargo, tan vivido... The last couple lines I could only paraphrase, "Isn't it time we started thinking that just being alive demands something of us, big things maybe, or perhaps some simple thing would be enough...words for one thing, household words well worn with warmth."

Jen makes two plates of delicious nachos, piled high with manchego and guacamole (made from perfect avocados purchased for $.20 that morning). Mechanical fans swirl, mariachi blares from a passing car, we talk about nothing in particular as the sun sets and tiny, tan geckos end their day by scaling the ceiling above us to congregate, within the terracota light shade, near the warmth.

That big package from the store.. Jose's Fed up Too

You might think we are joking as to the culinary delight known as our tasteless crackers, but we are not. To prove our point further, we present you Jose, our starving Sayulita begger dog, who now refuses them also. He'll take them in his mouth and just stare at us with a look in his eye which says "Really? This is the best you can do?". Sometimes he breaks them up a bit, but in the end very little gets eaten by our canine pal, so we really have to start digging into your suggestions.

We were in the grocery store again today and I still spied an alarmingly large supply of the giant cracker bags, so someone, somewhere, must find these palatable.

PS. We actually found out a few days ago that Jose's real name is Max. Apparently he followed some of the renters on the ground floor to a village a few miles away. Upon arrival the locals of that village knew Jose/Max and that he was from Sayulita. We still prefer calling him Jose, perhaps for the same reason the villagers prefer calling him Max, he just seems more exotic with a foreign name.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Two Down

I had my own visit to the Doctor today due to some nagging ear pain that was getting worse instead of going away. My ear canal far too swollen for a diagnosis, I have been relegated to anti-inflammatories and a mess of other pills. Worst of all is the request that I too keep my head above water and I'm not allowed to drown my sorrows with any alcohol. So, now begins stage two of my vacation trying to enjoy Sayulita sans surfing and cerveza. I think my goal will be to try my best to match Joya's photographic prowess about town. Perhaps in a couple days I will try and venture back out in the water for a bit with the help of some ear plugs.

If nothing else, I will enjoy sitting on the beach watching my travel-mates tear it up on the waves ;)

Playa de Los Muertos

Thanks to Nic's aural injury and Jen and I growing weary of our own brand of surfing, we spent some time exploring a neighboring beach to the south of Sayulita. We found directions online and also got some pointers from our neighbors on how to get there.

However, that didn't seem to squelch our touristic ability to get lost. Well, lost is probably a pretty strong word considering the Pacific Ocean is always within walking, and to a lesser extent hearing distance. Along the way we got to see a bit of the underbelly of Sayulita. Apparently all the homes aren't has plush and comfy as the one we are renting. In fact, many don't even have walls. We were able to witness a second floor kitchen conversation between a mother and child due to the lack of a western wall on their building. This definitely caught my eye, and if not for already feeling like I was intruding on their privacy by just walking on the road, I opted to not raise my camera.

In the end we found that our wrong turn simply amounted to walking two to three times the distance necessary to arrive at our destination. Somehow after multiple forks in the road we managed to take a path leading directly to Playa de Los Muertos or Beach of the Dead. If that doesn't sound like a good vacation spot then I don't know what is! This beach earns it's name by the cemetery that lies northeast of it. One thing Jen pointed out on our lengthy bus ride from Puerto Vallarta to Sayulita was the number and condition of the cemeteries along the way. She mentioned that it looked that more effort has gone into housing the dead than the living. However, it's fair to say that a number of the cemeteries aren't in that great of shape.

The cemetery itself is nestled into the hillside in it's own private section of jungle. This provides for a beautiful setting for some of the sites, but at the same time the growth and neglect gave me concern for the others. Between the erosion from the extremely heavy rains and the lack of growth control it would not have surprised me to see a limb or two unearthed. While I was careful where I placed my feet as I walked through a cemetery which clearly did not lay out "plots" for its inhabitants, I noticed a lot of trash strewn about. Along with the trash were a lot of weathered decorations and underwater candles. The cemetery definitely felt lonely as if its been a good while since anyone has come by.

After a little bit of research the unkempt feel of the cemetery could very well be the remnants of last year's Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). In Mexico, the first and second day of November mark days of remembrance and celebration of the lives of those who have passed on. During this time, the family members left behind decorate the graves of their loved ones. Since it's September, that means 10 months have passed since the last celebration. You can imagine what 10 months in the jungle will do to a wreath or bouquet of flowers. Perhaps this is why many of the flowers left are artificial. In some cases, altars to the deceased are created in their former homes and are adorned with candles, skulls made of sugar, and for some their favorite food or drink. They are also known to have fresh water to refresh the weary soul. This could explain the jugs of what we assumed to be water on some of the graves in the cemetery. While most in Mexico commemorate the day of the dead, there are customs for honoring the deceased that are highly localized. I don't imagine we could fully understand everything about this cemetery without conversing with a local familiar with it.

Unlike the maintenance of the cemetery, much care has gone into the creation of some of the grave sites. The headstones are typically ornate and embellished with cherubic statues. Most every grave site is adorned with a crucifix. Statues of Mary can also be found and they take the form of the Mexican rendering of her likeness that you are likely familiar with.

On the other side of the cemetery lies a secluded beach which is excellent for swimming. Rock formations jutting out on both ends of the beach create a protected cove and a sense of privacy for the handful of people that are willing to abandon the glorious surfing to the north. We spent some time floating in the 80 degree water (don't worry, Nic obeyed his doctor and kept his head above water) and appreciating the new scenery in the much calmer waves. This also gave us a chance to hone our synchronized swimming routines and practice our Ariel impressions.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Surfing is Hard

I think most people have an impression of surfing that is a bit ideallic. That any beach bum could do it, playing on the waves, carving it up.. how hard could it be. I think the truth is closer that you NEED to be a beach bum to become truly excellent at surfing, it isn't a great casual sport.

Unlike almost any other sport, surfing never lets you practice a particular skill over and over under the same condition. When learning how to mountain bike, you can always pick the bike up carry it back over the log and try again under until you master it. When surfing, if you don't nail your pop up and slip off the board, you instead have to fight your way back through the crashing waves and wait for another wave, who's circumstances will be completely different and only slightly relevant to your last try. It's a sport where do-overs are non-existent and persistence alone isn't enough, you just need to spend tons of hours in the water.

Until Joya arrives, I'm the one with the most experience, but that isn't saying much. Getting hammered for a month straight in Hermosa last December mostly just taught me how not to drown and maybe a bit on how to stand up quickly, but I still can't ride a wave worth a damn. And although Eric and Jen have much nicer conditions to learn the art, it is still a steep slope. In short, we all pretty much suck.

An atypical and highly successful two hour outing might involve us catching two or three waves each for a few seconds of riding. But for those three waves, we fought to catch a dozen more, were called off a dozen more and probably bailed on half a dozen as we were getting up. There isn't much positive reinforcement going on.

But I'm not complaining, being out on the water and splashing in the waves makes it all fun, and those few seconds you ARE riding the wave make it all worthwhile. We all look at the incredible surfers about and can only imagine what it must feel like to carve through the waves as they do, to fly off the lip only to land back into the wave, to slide down the face backwards after a cut back. To reach that level, I think you really do have to be a beach bum, but sometimes it sure looks like it would be worth it.

That big package from the store.. (Pt 2)

In our continuing quest to figure out what to do with our excess of bland chip like doodads, Jen decided to use them as building material for a sail boat. Not too surprisingly it floated quite well in the bathtub, though I'm not sure how much longer it would have lasted before losing its integrity.

Any suggestions for what to do with the remaining eighteen? We must use them somehow, and clearly they were not made for eating.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Shredded Feet

Earlier this week it seemed I couldn't go to the beach without coming back with some new lacerations on my feet. Amid calls to not put my feet down when I get off the board, I was pretty adamant there was little I could do to avoid it. The further north you go on the two waves in Sayulita the closer you get to the shallow entry covered in rocks laced with flesh from my feet.

The safest bet for me is to constantly make sure I'm working the southern shoulder of the wave which serves two purposes -- staying out of the locals way and leaving less blood in the sand when I leave. The dog and iguana population have ensured that the roads here aren't exactly the cleanest surface for open wounds, so I'm glad I seem to have found a way to avoid getting new ones.

Tiempo de Cerveza

There is one interesting side effect to having endless days of sunshine and humidity: a seemingly bottomless thirst for ice cold cervezas. It's no surprise that most Mexican beers are light and refreshing, they are perfectly suited to dull the edge of the incredibly hot and humid afternoons and evenings. They are also so easy to drink that Eric and I find ourselves polishing off a six pack per day, and that's when trying to exercise some restraint. Meanwhile, Jen was born with some kind of immunization against beer and prefers the water.

To this I say "Nonsense", when a bottle of beer can be had for 80 cents (compare that to bottled water) it is simply a fool's game to drink anything else!


Surfing Etiquette

Probably the biggest thing I was concerned about coming into this trip was dealing with experienced and/or local surfers.

I had worries that a newbie as well as a blindingly white tourist would do a lot to cramp their style. I'm totally okay with a fair amount of localism. It's only fair really, I could imagine living and surfing here and constantly fighting with new surfers who know little if anything about the sport. Nic coached me a bit on the finer points of surfing etiquette and my pal google tried to fill in the gaps.

The most important thing is to not drop-in on anybody. This basically means whoever is closer to where the wave is breaking (and on his feet) gets the right of way. At the same time, some level of respect should be given to the local surfers who are capable of ripping up every wave they come across. It is generally bad form to join a lineup of experienced surfers if you are just learning, so it's better to hang out on the shoulder of the wave or closer in to shore and try to gain balance there. The problem here is that the good surfers use the entire wave and pretty much any time there is a surfer to your left -- which is almost always, you are considered to be dropping in on them.

I was starting to get frustrated to the point of not wanting to surf after getting called off 4 or 5 consecutive waves which I had caught. Thankfully it turns out there seems to be a bit of an unwritten rule out in Sayulita -- or perhaps it just works out this way naturally. The early morning is apparently gringo hour. There is only a handful of surfers and only a couple pretty good ones. None of the really aggro guys are out which makes it much more mellow and fun for a beginner. By starting early, the day's schedule gets bumped up and your post-siesta surfing can then take place while everyone else is resting. But man, there are a few REALLY good surfers here, and not coincidentally they are the most aggressive as well.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

That big package from the store..

Remember that huge package of non descript chip like things we bought? Well it turns out they ARE chips, but not for breakfast (which was my original hope) but instead just an alternative to the standard fare. Problem is, that although they come in a delicious looking 9x11" size, they are actually quite bland. We tried to choke a few down with some guacamole, but compared to their real chip brethren they didn't stand a chance.

Which left us in quite a quandary, what to do with the remaining 20 some giant sized chips that nobody wanted to eat.

We still haven't figured that one out, but in the meantime, we are having fun with the giant tasteless wafers, without further ado, behold our house of tasteless wafers!

PS. Yes, Jose does get a little chunk off of one every morning too.