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.